Mysterious sharp symmetric features detected around young double star

December 17, 2015 by Tomasz Nowakowski, report
Mysterious sharp symmetric features detected around young double star
SPHERE high-contrast images of AK Sco. All images show the two arms of the disk discussed in the paper. Credit: Markus Janson et al. 2015

(—An international team of astronomers, led by Markus Janson of Stockholm University in Sweden, has discovered mysterious sharp symmetric features around young double star, named AK Sco. The discovery is baffling scientists as they are still unsure about the nature of these features, pondering the possibilities that they are highly eccentric rings or two separate spiral arms in the disk around the star. Moreover, these features may have been caused by circumbinary planets interacting with the disk. The results were published on Dec. 14 in the arXiv journal.

AK Sco, located about 460 light years from Earth, is a spectroscopic binary star in the Upper Centaurus–Lupus (UCL) stellar association. It is a relatively young system, at least in astronomical terms, as scientists estimate it to be from 10 to 20 million years old. Spectroscopic binaries are systems in which the stars are so close together that they appear as a single star even in a telescope. The only evidence of a binary star comes from the Doppler effect on its emitted light. Periodic Doppler shifts of the wavelengths of lines are seen in the spectrum, as the stars move through their orbits.

Janson and his colleagues made the discovery using the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT), located in Chile. The observations were conducted in April 2015 as a part of the Search for Planets Orbiting Two Stars (SPOTS) program. The scientists made use of the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research (SPHERE) instrument recently installed on VLT. SPHERE is a powerful planet finder and its objective is to detect and study new giant exoplanets orbiting nearby stars using a method known as direct imaging.

Detecting the sharp features in near-infrared imaging of AK Sco's disk was a surprise for the scientists as they expected to find rather exoplanets in the neighborhood. However, what they found, might not be planets at all.

"We report the discovery of resolved scattered light emission from the circumbinary disk around the well-studied young double star AK Sco. The sharp morphology of the imaged feature is surprising, given the smooth appearance of the disk in its spectral energy distribution," the astronomers wrote in the paper.

They researchers have noticed that the central has a semi-major axis of approximately 0.16 astronomical units or AU and that the disk appears to have a gap with an inner rim at 0.58 AU. The images of AK Sco obtained by the SPHERE instrument reveal that the system has 'arms' extending from each side of the central star almost symmetrically. The scientists also found out that these features constitute scattered radiation from off-axis material in the circumbinary disk.

The mysterious sharp features could represent an eccentric ring of material surrounding a gap. The scientists note that such structures are often found in disks that contain rings of material with gaps inside them. However, other observations conducted by ESO's Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) don't support this theory.

Another explanation taken into account by Janson and his colleagues is that these structures are spiral arms that could be induced through gravitational instability or through the influence of a planet or binary companion. These two are wound in opposite directions—one unwinding clockwise and the other counter-clockwise. But the fact that the features are so apparently symmetric, speaks against this hypothesis.

What is worth noticing, either of these scenarios mentioned earlier, may point to circumbinary exoplanets in the disk. The features could be created by one or several planets interacting with the disk.

Whichever proposed theory is true, the authors of the paper highlight the importance of the new generation adaptive optics systems - like this installed on the SPHERE instrument - in the search of disks around stars. They hope that these will detected more often in near future as a result of implementing new technology of observations.

Explore further: Planetary influences on young stellar disks

More information: Detection of Sharp Symmetric Features in the Circumbinary Disk Around AK Sco, arXiv:1512.04552 [astro-ph.SR]

The Search for Planets Orbiting Two Stars (SPOTS) survey aims to study the formation and distribution of planets in binary systems by detecting and characterizing circumbinary planets and their formation environments through direct imaging. With the SPHERE Extreme Adaptive Optics instrument, a good contrast can be achieved even at small (<300 mas) separations from bright stars, which enables studies of planets and disks in a separation range that was previously inaccessible. Here, we report the discovery of resolved scattered light emission from the circumbinary disk around the well-studied young double star AK Sco, at projected separations in the ~13—40 AU range. The sharp morphology of the imaged feature is surprising, given the smooth appearance of the disk in its spectral energy distribution. We show that the observed morphology can be represented either as a highly eccentric ring around AK Sco, or as two separate spiral arms in the disk, wound in opposite directions. The relative merits of these interpretations are discussed, as well as whether these features may have been caused by one or several circumbinary planets interacting with the disk.

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5 / 5 (1) Dec 17, 2015
You described "... ESO's Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA)...". This is incorrect ALMA is not solely an ESO institution. Major Members of the collaboration are ESO, NRAO, NAOJ. ALMA stands on its own as an institution.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (2) Dec 17, 2015
Thank you for the clarification...
Frosted Flake
5 / 5 (1) Dec 18, 2015
Fascinating. Thank you for the raw data. I hate it when data like this is hidden behind an artists impression.

If I could have a little help, I take it the acronym MAS (in the abstract) refers to milli-arc-second?
1 / 5 (1) Dec 19, 2015
Likely polar plasma filaments which electrically connect the stars with each other as well as other neighboring stars.

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