Planets Living on the Edge

December 17, 2008
This image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the nasty effects of living near a group of massive stars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

(PhysOrg.com) -- Some stars have it tough when it comes to raising planets. A new image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows one unlucky lot of stars, born into a dangerous neighborhood. The stars themselves are safe, but the material surrounding them -- the dusty bits of what might have been future planets -- can be seen blowing off into space.

The hazard in this particular nook of space is a group of behemoth stars. Radiation and winds from the massive stars are wiping smaller, sun-like stars clean of their planet-making material.

"We are seeing the effects that massive stars have on smaller stars that are trying to form planets," said Xavier Koenig, lead author of a paper about the discovery, recently published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. "These stars may or may not go on to form small, inner planets like the Earth, but it's probable that outer planets like Uranus and Neptune would never come to be."

Many stars and planets do in fact grow up and survive the harsh environments of massive stars. Some astronomers say our middle-aged sun, though now sitting in a tranquil patch of space, once resided in a raucous, massive star-forming cloud. Over time, stars in these turbulent regions disperse and spread out, spending their later years in relative solitude.

The new Spitzer observations illustrate just how nasty these massive star-forming regions can be. It shows a portion of an active star-forming nebula called W5, located about 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Cassiopeia. Radiation and winds from a hub of four stars, each about 20 times as massive as our sun, are stripping the planet-forming material right off of three young, sun-like stars about one light-year away.

The sun-like stars are about two to three million years old -- the age when stars are thought to begin forming planets out of disks of gas and dust that swirl around them. The dust from these disks is visible in the Spitzer image as comet-like tails pointing away from the destructive massive stars.

Spitzer, an infrared observatory, can see this dust from the disks because the dust is warm and glows with infrared light. Since the telescope was launched more than five years ago, it has identified a handful of disks being blown from their stars.

"On astronomical timescales, these events are probably fairly short-lived," said Koenig. "It probably takes about one million years for the disks to completely disappear."

Koenig said that the dust being swiped away is from the outer portion of the stars' planet-forming disks -- around where Uranus and Neptune would orbit in our solar system and beyond. That means it's possible that any baby Earths forming in these faraway systems would grow up safely. Outer planets, on the other hand, might be nothing more than dust in the wind.

Provided by NASA

Explore further: The dwarf planet Quaoar

Related Stories

The dwarf planet Quaoar

August 28, 2015

The vast Kuiper Belt, which orbits at the outer edge of our solar system, has been the site of many exciting discoveries in the past decade or so. Otherwise known as the Trans-Neptunian region, small bodies have been discovered ...

The gas giant Jupiter

August 26, 2015

Ever since the invention of the telescope four hundred years ago, astronomers have been fascinated by the gas giant known as Jupiter. Between it's constant, swirling clouds, its many, many moons, and its red spot, there are ...

What is A dwarf planet?

August 18, 2015

The term dwarf planet has been tossed around a lot in recent years. As part of a three-way categorization of bodies orbiting the sun, the term was adopted in 2006 due to the discovery of objects beyond the orbit of Neptune ...

Recommended for you

At Saturn, one of these rings is not like the others

September 2, 2015

When the sun set on Saturn's rings in August 2009, scientists on NASA's Cassini mission were watching closely. It was the equinox—one of two times in the Saturnian year when the sun illuminates the planet's enormous ring ...

New Horizons team selects potential Kuiper Belt flyby target

August 29, 2015

NASA has selected the potential next destination for the New Horizons mission to visit after its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system. The destination is a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 that orbits ...

Prawn Nebula: Cosmic recycling

September 2, 2015

Dominating this image is part of the nebula Gum 56, illuminated by the hot bright young stars that were born within it. For millions of years stars have been created out of the gas in this nebula, material which is later ...

Image: Hubble sees a youthful cluster

August 31, 2015

Shown here in a new image taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) on board the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is the globular cluster NGC 1783. This is one of the biggest globular clusters in the Large Magellanic ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

menkaur
not rated yet Dec 18, 2008
"stars, trying to form planets"....

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.