Science news
Dirty Stars Make Good Solar System Hosts

Dirty Stars Make Good Solar System Hosts

Some stars are lonely behemoths, with no surrounding planets or asteroids, while others sport a skirt of attendant planetary bodies.

New research published this week in The Astrophysical Journal Letters explains why the composition of the stars often indicates whether their light shines into deep space, or whether a small fraction shines onto orbiting planets.

When a star forms, collapsing from a dense cloud into a luminous ball, it and the disk of dust and gas orbiting it reflect the composition of that original cloud and the elements within it. While some clouds are poor in heavier elements, many have a wealth of these elements. These are the dirty stars that are good solar system hosts.

"When you observe stars, the ones with more heavy elements have more planets," says co-author Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, Curator of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. "In other words, what's in the disk reflects what's in the star. This is a common sense result." Observation of distant solar systems shows that exoplanets, or planets that orbit stars other than the Sun, are much more abundant around stars that have a greater abundance of elements heavier than helium, like iron and oxygen. These elements are the ones that can turn into rocks or ice.

The new simulations by Mac Low and his colleagues Anders Johansen (Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands) and Andrew Youdin (Canadian Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Toronto) compute just how planets and other bodies form as pebbles clump into mini-planets referred to as planetesimals.

Their current work hinges on their previously published research (in Nature in 2007) that explains why rocks orbiting a star within the more slowly-revolving gas disk are not quickly dragged into the star itself because of the headwinds they feel.

Like bicyclists drafting behind the leader in the Tour de France, the rocks draft behind each other, so that in orbits with more rocks, they feel less drag and drift towards the star more slowly. Rocks orbiting further out drift into those orbits, until there are so many that gravity can form them into mini-planets.

This concentration of orbiting rocks in a gas disk is called a "streaming instability" and is the theoretical work of co-author Youdin. "It's a run-away process. When a small group of rocks distorts the flow of gas, many others rush to line up like lazy cyclists and matter accumulates very quickly," he says.

Dirty Stars

"Pebble density increases with time. The black regions have no pebbles, blue regions have a moderate density, and bright regions have high density of pebbles. The square represents a small part of the disk of gas and dust that surrounds the star before the planets form, referred to as the protoplanetary disk, seen from above. The drifting pebbles first concentrate in an elongated filament. The filament then breaks into seven gravitationally bound mini-planets. This is only possible because the abundance of heavy elements in the simulated disk is slightly higher than the solar value. Disks that are less dirty, referred to as lower metallicity or fewer heavy elements, would not be able to form planets in these simulations. (Credit: Anders Johansen/Sterrewacht Leiden or Leiden Observatory)"

Source: American Museum of Natural History

Science News

© Copyright ScienceNewsDen.Com and its licensors. All rights reserved.