Magazine article Science News

Stellar Eclipse Hints at Planet-Forming Debris. (Planetary System in the Making?)

Magazine article Science News

Stellar Eclipse Hints at Planet-Forming Debris. (Planetary System in the Making?)

Article excerpt

Astronomers this week reported the first evidence that a young star is periodically eclipsed by a stream of debris that could be an orbiting cluster of asteroids. The debris may be held in place by a massive, unseen planet, the researchers say. If this interpretation proves correct, scientists may have caught a planetary system during its creation.

About 5 years ago, William Herbst of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., began supervising undergraduates studying the star KH 15D. After analyzing the students' accumulating data, Herbst and one of his collaborators realized that the star was winking on and off like clockwork.

Many stars appear to wax and wane on a strict timetable, typically when they have a stellar partner that periodically passes between them and Earth. But the eclipse of one star by another doesn't last more than about half a day. In contrast, KH 15D, which starts to fade every 48.3 days, remains faint for about 18 days.

Only a collection of dust grains, rocks, or perhaps asteroids orbiting in a strung-out arc can account for the lengthy eclipses, assert Herbst, Catrina Hamilton of Connecticut College in New London and their collaborators. Follow-up observations by several teams have revealed that two such debris groupings may be orbiting the star. Herbst presented the findings in Washington, D.C., on June 19 at a meeting on extra-solar planets.

The extended arcs of dust or rock eclipsing KH 15D could be part of the star's protoplanetary disk, a doughnut-shaped distribution of gas, dust, and ice that surrounds many young stars and contains the raw material to form planets, comets, and asteroids (SN: 5/4/02, p. 280). For the debris to eclipse the star, the disk must be oriented edge-on relative to Earth, Herbst says. Because the star lies 2,400 light-years from Earth, neither the disk nor the clumps within it can be imaged. …

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