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The Strange Planets of 'Fomalhaut' --A Spectacular Alien Star System




Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile discovered that planets orbiting the star Fomalhaut must be much smaller than originally thought. The discovery was made possible by exceptionally sharp ALMA images of a disc, or ring, of dust orbiting Fomalhaut, which lies about 25 light-years from Earth. It helps resolve a controversy among earlier observers of the system.

The ALMA images showed that both the inner and outer edges of the thin, dusty disc have very sharp edges. That fact, combined with computer simulations, led the scientists to conclude that the dust particles in the disc are kept within the disc by the gravitational effect of two planets — one closer to the star than the disc and one more distant.
Their calculations also indicated the probable size of the planets — larger than Mars but no larger than a few times the size of the Earth. This is much smaller than astronomers had previously thought. In 2008, a NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image had revealed the inner planet, then thought to be larger than Saturn, the second largest planet in our Solar System. However, later observations with infrared telescopes failed to detect the planet.

"Combining ALMA observations of the ring's shape with computer models, we can place very tight limits on the mass and orbit of any planet near the ring," said Aaron Boley (a Sagan Fellow at theUniversity of Florida, USA) who was leader of the study. "The masses of these planets must be small; otherwise the planets would destroy the ring," he added. The small sizes of the planets explain why the earlier infrared observations failed to detect them, the scientists said.

The orginal ALMA research shows that the ring's width is about 16 times the distance from the Sun to the Earth, and is only one-seventh as thick as it is wide.

"The ring is even more narrow and thinner than previously thought," said Matthew Payne, also of the University of Florida.

The ring is about 140 times the Sun-Earth distance from the star. In our own Solar System, Pluto is about 40 times more distant from the Sun than the Earth. "Because of the small size of the planets near this ring and their large distance from their host star, they are among the coldest planets yet found orbiting a normal star," added Aaron Boley.

In November 2008, Hubble astronomers announced the exoplanet, named Fomalhaut b, as the first one ever directly imaged in visible light around another star. The object was imaged just inside a vast ring of debris surrounding but offset from the host star.
The planet's location and mass -- no more than three times Jupiter's -- seemed just right for its gravity to explain the ring's appearance. Recent studies have claimed that this planetary interpretation is incorrect. Based on the object's apparent motion and the lack of an infrared detection by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, they argue that the object is a short-lived dust cloud unrelated to any planet. A new analysis, however, brings the planet conclusion back to life.
"Although our results seriously challenge the original discovery paper, they do so in a way that actually makes the object's interpretation much cleaner and leaves intact the core conclusion, that Fomalhaut b is indeed a massive planet," said Thayne Currie, an astronomer formerly at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and now at the University of Toronto.
The discovery study reported that Fomalhaut b's brightness varied by about a factor of two and cited this as evidence that the planet was accreting gas. Follow-up studies then interpreted this variability as evidence that the object actually was a transient dust cloud instead.
In the new study, Currie and his team reanalyzed Hubble observations of the star from 2004 and 2006. They easily recovered the planet in observations taken at visible wavelengths near 600 and 800 nanometers, and made a new detection in violet light near 400 nanometers. In contrast to the earlier research, the team found that the planet remained at constant brightness.
The team attempted to detect Fomalhaut b in the infrared using the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, but was unable to do so. The non-detections with Subaru and Spitzer imply that Fomalhaut b must have less than twice the mass of Jupiter.
Another contentious issue has been the object's orbit. If Fomalhaut b is responsible for the ring's offset and sharp interior edge, then it must follow an orbit aligned with the ring and must now be moving at its slowest speed. The speed implied by the original study appeared to be too fast. Additionally, some researchers argued that Fomalhaut b follows a tilted orbit that passes through the ring plane.
Using the Hubble data, Currie's team established that Fomalhaut b is moving with a speed and direction consistent with the original idea that the planet's gravity is modifying the ring.
"What we've seen from our analysis is that the object's minimum distance from the disk has hardly changed at all in two years, which is a good sign that it's in a nice ring-sculpting orbit," explained Timothy Rodigas, a graduate student in the University of Arizona and a member of the team.
Currie's team also addressed studies that interpret Fomalhaut b as a compact dust cloud not gravitationally bound to a planet. Near Fomalhaut's ring, orbital dynamics would spread out or completely dissipate such a cloud in as little as 60,000 years. The dust grains experience additional forces, which operate on much faster timescales, as they interact with the star's light.
"Given what we know about the behavior of dust and the environment where the planet is located, we think that we're seeing a planetary object that is completely embedded in dust rather than a free-floating dust cloud," said team member John Debes, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md.
Because astronomers detect Fomalhaut b by the light of surrounding dust and not by light or heat emitted by its atmosphere, it no longer ranks as a "directly imaged exoplanet." But because it's the right mass and in the right place to sculpt the ring, Currie's team thinks it should be considered a "planet identified from direct imaging."
Fomalhaut was targeted with Hubble most recently in May by another team. Those observations are currently under scientific analysis and are expected to be published soon.*

The Daily Galaxy via 


If one of the planets turns out to be of habitable size, I definitely think it should be named Vulcan. My understanding is that the planet Vulcan on Star Trek orbits Fomalhaut.

Sorry, Bob - Spock's home star was Epsilon Eridani, not Fomalhaut. But don't despair - planets have been found around Epsilon Eridani so one could be named Vulcan especially if it turns out to be a rocky-type planet.


s a nice

Grow up people,star trek & spock are fiction. We are discovering some of the most amazing galaxies and You trivialize it with this childish bulls*+t! Grow up already.

@markcarroll - there is enough room in my life for both facts and fantasy - I can appreciate and enjoy both - it's really sad your limited imagination and narrow-mindedness doesn't allow you to fantasize - there is nothing trivial about a healthy imagination - it's what has moved the world forward in more ways you seem to be able to imagine. DON'T GROW UP ALREADY!

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