A new Nasa study has proposed that huge dust spiral patterns seen around newborn stars may be a telltale sign of gigantic, unseen planets in their orbit.
This idea not only opens the door to a new method of planet detection, but also could offer a look into the early formative years of planet birth.
Though astronomers have cataloged thousands of planets orbiting other stars, the very earliest stages of planet formation are elusive because nascent planets are born and embedded inside vast, pancake-shaped disks of dust and gas encircling newborn stars, known as circumstellar disks.
The conclusion that planets may betray their presence by modifying circumstellar disks on large scales is based on detailed computer modeling of how gas-and-dust disks evolve around newborn stars, which was conducted by two NASA Hubble Fellows, Ruobing Dong of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Zhaohuan Zhu of Princeton University.
“It’s difficult to see suspected planets inside a bright disk surrounding a young star. Based on this study, we are convinced that planets can gravitationally excite structures in the disk. So if you can identify features in a disk and convince yourself those features are created by an underlying planet that you cannot see, this would be a smoking gun of forming planets,” Dong said.
The research appears in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.