Pulverized planet dust might lie around double stars

Aug 23, 2010
This artist's concept illustrates an imminent planetary collision around a pair of double stars. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope found evidence that such collisions could be common around a certain type of tight double, or binary, star system, referred to as RS Canum Venaticorums or RS CVns for short. The stars are similar to the sun in age and mass, but they orbit tightly around each other. With time, they are thought to get closer and closer, until their gravitational influences change, throwing the orbits of planetary bodies circling around them out of whack and leading to collisions. Spitzer's infrared vision spotted dusty evidence for such collisions around three tight star pairs. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

(PhysOrg.com) -- Tight double-star systems might not be the best places for life to spring up, according to a new study using data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The infrared observatory spotted a surprisingly large amount of dust around three mature, close-orbiting star pairs. Where did the dust come from? Astronomers say it might be the aftermath of tremendous planetary collisions.

"This is real-life science fiction," said Jeremy Drake of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass. "Our data tell us that planets in these systems might not be so lucky -- collisions could be common. It's theoretically possible that habitable planets could exist around these types of , so if there happened to be any life there, it could be doomed."

Drake is the principal investigator of the research, published in the Aug. 19 issue of the .

The particular class of binary, or double, stars in the study are about as snug as stars get. Named RS Canum Venaticorums, or RS CVns for short, they are separated by only about two million miles (3.2 million kilometers), or one-fiftieth the distance between Earth and our sun. The stellar pairs orbit around each other every few days, with one face on each star perpetually locked and pointed toward the other.

The close-knit stars are similar to the sun in size and are probably about a billion to a few billion years old. But these stars spin much faster, and, as a result, have powerful magnetic fields and giant, dark spots. The drives strong -- gale-force versions of the -- that slow the stars down, pulling the twirling duos closer over time. And this is where the planetary chaos might begin.

As the stars cozy up to each other, their gravitational influences change, and this could cause disturbances to planetary bodies orbiting around both stars. Comets and any planets that might exist in the systems would start jostling about and banging into each other, sometimes in powerful collisions. This includes planets that could theoretically be circling in the double stars' habitable zone -- a region where temperatures would allow liquid water to exist. Though no have been discovered around any stars beyond our sun at this point in time, tight double-star systems are known to host planets; for example, one system not in the study, called HW Vir, has two gas-giant planets.

"These kinds of systems paint a picture of the late stages in the lives of planetary systems," said Marc Kuchner, a co-author from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "And it's a future that's messy and violent."

This artist's concept illustrates a tight pair of stars and a surrounding disk of dust -- most likely the shattered remains of planetary smashups. Using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, the scientists found dusty evidence for such collisions around three sets of stellar twins (a class of stars called RS Canum Venaticorums or RS CVns for short). The stars, which are similar to our sun in mass and age, orbit very closely around each other. They are separated by just one-fiftieth of the Earth-sun distance. As time goes by, the stars get closer and closer, and this causes the gravitational harmony in the systems to go out of whack. Comets and any planets orbiting around the stars could jostle about and collide. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Spitzer spotted the infrared glow of hot dusty disks, about the temperature of molten lava, around three such tight binary systems. One of the systems was originally flagged as having a suspicious excess of infrared light in 1983 by the Infrared Astronomical Satellite. In addition, researchers using Spitzer recently found a warm disk of debris around another star that turned out to be a tight binary system.

The team says that dust normally would have dissipated and blown away from the stars by this mature stage in their lives. They conclude that something -- most likely planetary collisions -- must therefore be kicking up the fresh dust. In addition, because dusty disks now have been found around four, older binary systems, the scientists know that the observations are not a fluke. Something chaotic is very likely going on.

If any life forms did exist in these star systems, and they could look up at the sky, they would have quite a view. Marco Matranga, first author of the paper, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and now a visiting astronomer at the Palermo Astronomical Observatory in Sicily, said, "The skies there would have two huge suns, like the ones above the planet Tatooine in 'Star Wars.'"

Other authors include V.L. Kashyap of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and Massimo Marengo of Iowa State University, Ames.

The Spitzer observations were made before it ran out of its liquid coolant in May 2009, officially beginning its warm mission.

Explore further: Finding hints of gravitational waves in the stars

Related Stories

Planets Living on the Edge

Dec 17, 2008

(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 ...

Planetary systems can form around binary stars

Jan 10, 2006

New theoretical work shows that gas-giant planet formation can occur around binary stars in much the same way that it occurs around single stars like the Sun. The work is presented today by Dr. Alan Boss of ...

Making Jupiters

Aug 21, 2009

IC348 is a glowing nebula of young stars, hot gas, and cold dust seen in the direction of the constellation of Perseus. It is the nearest rich cluster of young stars to earth, being only about one thousand ...

Recommended for you

Gravitational waves according to Planck

1 hour ago

Scientists of the Planck collaboration, and in particular the Trieste team, have conducted a series of in-depth checks on the discovery recently publicized by the Antarctic Observatory, which announced last spring that it ...

Infant solar system shows signs of windy weather

1 hour ago

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have observed what may be the first-ever signs of windy weather around a T Tauri star, an infant analog of our own Sun. This may help ...

Finding hints of gravitational waves in the stars

7 hours ago

Scientists have shown how gravitational waves—invisible ripples in the fabric of space and time that propagate through the universe—might be "seen" by looking at the stars. The new model proposes that ...

How gamma ray telescopes work

8 hours ago

Yesterday I talked about the detection of gamma ray bursts, intense blasts of gamma rays that occasionally appear in distant galaxies. Gamma ray bursts were only detected when gamma ray satellites were put ...

The frequency of high-energy gamma ray bursts

10 hours ago

In the 1960s a series of satellites were built as part of Project Vela.  Project Vela was intended to detect violations of the 1963 ban on above ground testing of nuclear weapons.  The Vela satellites were ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

genastropsychicallst
1 / 5 (1) Aug 24, 2010
Starring double is always wrong about dusting one right world. Ever is uneven any rouging but never was not even one rougest unever, bey quadrate. Mean, all rouges are always without theory because with practum is also not the real rouge.