From Cambridge via “Scientists investigate debris disk in a nearby planetary system”

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Cambridge University

May 11, 2017
Tomasz Nowakowski

ALMA band 7 (0.86 mm) continuum image of 61 Vir with natural weights and corrected by the primary beam response (FWHM∼ 1700). Credit: Marino et al., 2017.

ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres

Astronomers have recently presented new results of observations of a nearby planetary system known as 61 Virginis (or 61 Vir for short). The observations were focused on investigating the system’s debris disk, which could hold many clues to the nature of planetary formation beyond our solar system. The study is available in a paper published May 4, 2017.

61 Vir is a G-type, 4.6-billion-year-old main-sequence star about the size of our sun, located approximately 28 light years away. The star is known to be orbited by at least three planets that are five, 18 and 23 times more massive than Earth. One of the most intriguing features of this system is a debris disk extending from 30 to at least 100 AU from the star.

Debris disks are clouds of planetesimals and dust found in orbits around many stars. Studying such disks could improve our understanding about planet formation and the migration history of planets in planetary systems. With this aim in mind, a team of astronomers led by Sebastian Marino of the University of Cambridge in the U.K., has performed observations of 61 Vir’s debris disk using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. These observations were complemented by data from the Submillimetre Common-User Bolometer Array 2 (SCUBA2) installed in the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii.

East Asia Observatory James Clerk Maxwell telescope, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

“In this paper, we present the first observations of 61 Vir with ALMA at 0.86 mm, obtained with the aim of studying its debris disc to reveal the location of the parent planetesimals, and place constraints on the presence of planets at large separations that can shape the mass distribution in the disc. (…) In order to obtain the best disc constraints, in our analysis we combine new ALMA band 7 observations and new data at 0.85 mm from SCUBA2 installed on JCMT, thus, incorporating information from small and large angular scale structure,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

The new study reveals that the debris disk is larger than previously thought. Marino’s team found that it extends from 30 to at least 150 AU. Combined ALMA and SCUBA2/JMCT observations also show that at 0.86 mm the total disc emission is about 3.7 mJy and the disk has a surface density distribution of millimeter sized grains with a power law slope of approximately 0.1.

Moreover, the researchers assume that a yet unseen fourth planet may lurk somewhere in the system between 61 Vir d at 0.5 AU and the inner edge of the disc. They argue that if the disc was stirred at 150 AU by an additional planet, that unseen alien world should have a mass of at least 10 Earth masses and should orbit its host at a distance between 10 and 20 AU.

“We found that in order to have stirred the disc out to 150 AU, the planet must be more massive than 10 Earth masses and a semi-major axis between 10 and 20 AU if it has an eccentricity lower than 0.1. Otherwise, for higher eccentricities, it could have a lower mass and a semi-major axis between 4 and 20 AU,” the team concluded.

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The University of Cambridge (abbreviated as Cantab in post-nominal letters) is a collegiate public research university in Cambridge, England. Founded in 1209, Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s fourth-oldest surviving university. It grew out of an association of scholars who left the University of Oxford after a dispute with townsfolk. The two ancient universities share many common features and are often jointly referred to as “Oxbridge”.

Cambridge is formed from a variety of institutions which include 31 constituent colleges and over 100 academic departments organised into six schools. The university occupies buildings throughout the town, many of which are of historical importance. The colleges are self-governing institutions founded as integral parts of the university. In the year ended 31 July 2014, the university had a total income of £1.51 billion, of which £371 million was from research grants and contracts. The central university and colleges have a combined endowment of around £4.9 billion, the largest of any university outside the United States. Cambridge is a member of many associations and forms part of the “golden triangle” of leading English universities and Cambridge University Health Partners, an academic health science centre. The university is closely linked with the development of the high-tech business cluster known as “Silicon Fen”.