A young star caught forming like a planet

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Credit: J. D. Ilee / University of Leeds


Astronomers have captured one of the most detailed views of a young star taken to date, and revealed an unexpected companion in orbit around it.

While observing the young star, astronomers led by Dr John Ilee from the University of Leeds discovered it was not in fact one star, but two.

The main object, referred to as MM 1a, is a young massive star surrounded by a rotating disc of gas and dust that was the focus of the scientists’ original investigation.

A faint object, MM 1b, was detected just beyond the disc in orbit around MM 1a. The team believe this is one of the first examples of a “fragmented” disc to be detected around a massive young star.

“Stars form within large clouds of gas and dust in interstellar space,” said Dr Ilee, from the School of Physics and Astronomy at Leeds.

“When these clouds collapse under gravity, they begin to rotate faster, forming a disc around them. In low mass stars like our Sun, it is in these discs that planets can form.”

“In this case, the star and disc we have observed is so massive that, rather than witnessing a planet forming in the disc, we are seeing another star being born.”

By measuring the amount of radiation emitted by the dust, and subtle shifts in the frequency of light emitted by the gas, the researchers were able to calculate the mass of MM 1a and MM 1b.

Their work, published today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, found MM 1a weighs 40 times the mass of our Sun. The smaller orbiting star MM 1b was calculated to weigh less than half the mass of our Sun.

“Many older massive stars are found with nearby companions,” added Dr Ilee. “But binary stars are often very equal in mass, and so likely formed together as siblings. Finding a young binary system with a mass ratio of 80:1 is very unusual, and suggests an entirely different formation process for both objects.”

The favoured formation process for MM 1b occurs in the outer regions of cold, massive discs. These “gravitationally unstable” discs are unable to hold themselves up against the pull of their own gravity, collapsing into one – or more – fragments.

Dr Duncan Forgan, a co-author from the Centre for Exoplanet Science at the University of St Andrews, added: “I’ve spent most of my career simulating this process to form giant planets around stars like our Sun. To actually see it forming something as large as a star is really exciting.”

The researchers note that newly-discovered young star MM 1b could also be surrounded by its own circumstellar disc, which may have the potential to form planets of its own – but it will need to be quick.

Dr Ilee added: “Stars as massive as MM 1a only live for around a million years before exploding as powerful supernovae, so while MM 1b may have the potential to form its own planetary system in the future, it won’t be around for long.”

The astronomers made this surprising discovery by using a unique new instrument situated high in the Chilean desert – the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA).

Using the 66 individual dishes of ALMA together in a process called interferometry, the astronomers were able to simulate the power of a single telescope nearly 4km across, allowing them to image the material surrounding the young stars for the first time.

The team have been granted additional observing time with ALMA to further
characterise these exciting stellar systems in 2019. The upcoming observations will simulate a telescope that is 16km across – comparable to the area inside of
the ring-road surrounding Leeds.

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Further information:

The paper: G11.92-0.61 MM1: A Fragmented Keplerian Disk Surrounding a Proto-O Star is published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters 14 December 2018.

For any additional information please contact University of Leeds Media Relations Officer Anna Harrison on [email protected] or +44 (0)113 343 4196.

The authors of the research paper are Dr John Ilee (University of Leeds, UK), Dr Claudia Cyganowski (University of St Andrews, UK), Dr Crystal Brogan (National Radio Astronomy Observatory, USA), Dr Todd Hunter (National Radio Astronomy Observatory, USA), Dr Duncan Forgan (University of St Andrews), Dr Tom Haworth (Imperial College London, UK), Prof Cathie Clarke (University of Cambridge, UK), Prof Tim Harries (University of Exeter, UK).

Funders for this research include the Science and Technologies Facilities Council (UK) and the European Research Council

University of Leeds:

The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK, with more than 37,000 students from more than 150 different countries, and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University plays a significant role in the Turing, Rosalind Franklin and Royce Institutes.

We are a top ten university for research and impact power in the UK, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and are in the top 100 of the QS World University Rankings 2019.

The University was awarded a Gold rating by the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework in 2017, recognising its ‘consistently outstanding’ teaching and learning provision. Twenty-six of our academics have been awarded National Teaching Fellowships – more than any other institution in England, Northern Ireland and Wales – reflecting the excellence of our teaching. http://www.leeds.ac.uk

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA):

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

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