Signs of Planets in Dusty Ring

With help from the Subaru telescope, researchers are gaining a new understanding of the links between dusty disks and planet formation. The data could aid in the search for new worlds around distant stars.

The SEEDS (Strategic Exploration of Exoplanets and Disks with Subaru Telescope/HiCIAO) project, a five-year international collaboration launched in 2009 and led by Motohide Tamura of NAOJ (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan) has yielded another impressive image that contributes to our understanding of the link between disks and planet formation.

Researchers used Subaru’s planet-finder camera, HiCIAO (High Contrast Instrument for the Subaru Next Generation Adaptive Optics), to take a crisp high-contrast image of the dust ring around HR 4796 A, a young (8-10 million years old) nearby star, only 240 light-years away from Earth. The ring consists of dust grains in a wide orbit, roughly twice the size of Pluto’s orbit, around the central star.

The resolution of the image of the inner edge of the ring is so precise that an offset between its center and the star’s position can be measured. Although data from the Hubble Space Telescope led another research group to suspect such an offset, the Subaru data not only confirm its presence but also reveal it to be larger than previously assumed.

What caused the wheel of dust around HR 4796 A to run off its axis? The most plausible explanation is that the gravitational force of one or more planets orbiting in the gap within the ring must be tugging at the dust grains, thus unbalancing their course around the star in predictable ways.