NASA's Hubble Space Telescope unveils fascinating shadows in the disk of young star TW Hydrae, pointing towards the exciting possibility of planet formation within the system.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has observed multiple shadows in the disk surrounding young star TW Hydrae, hinting at planet formation within the system.
Shadows in the Planet-Forming Disk around TW Hydrae
Scientists using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope observed shadows sweeping across the gas-and-dust disk surrounding the red dwarf star TW Hydrae. First reported in 2017, planets do not cause these shadows, but by an inner disk slightly inclined relative to the larger outer disk.
Unseen Planets’ Gravity at Play
The gravitational pull of an unseen planet is one possible explanation for the shadows, as it could be dragging dust and gas into the planet’s inclined orbit. A second shadow observed in Hubble’s MAST archive might indicate another disk within the system, suggesting the presence of two forming planets.
A Glimpse into Our Solar System’s Infancy
TW Hydrae, less than 10 million years old and 200 light-years away, could have resembled our solar system some 4.6 billion years ago. Its nearly face-on tilt from Earth’s perspective provides an optimal view of a planetary construction site.
Tracking Shadows in Circumstellar Disks
The second shadow was discovered on June 6, 2021, during a multi-year program designed to monitor shadows in circumstellar disks. John Debes, the principal investigator and lead author of the study, compared the TW Hydrae disk to previous Hubble observations.
TW Hydrae: Two Misaligned Disks Cast Shadows
The research team’s best explanation for the shadows is the presence of two misaligned disks. Initially appearing as one, they eventually separated into two distinct shadows, making the system more complex than previously thought.
Planetary Gravitational Pull Causes Misaligned Disks
Two planets in slightly different orbital planes likely cause the misaligned disks due to their gravitational pull. The suspected planets are located at a distance similar to Jupiter’s from our Sun, with shadows completing one rotation around the star roughly every 15 years.
Similarities to Our Solar System’s Architecture
The inner disk’s inclinations relative to the outer disk’s plane are comparable to orbital inclinations within our solar system, resembling typical solar system architecture. The outer disk may extend several times the radius of our solar system’s Kuiper belt, with a gap possibly indicating a third planet in the system.
Future Observations of the TW Hydrae System
While inner planets in the TW Hydrae system are difficult to detect, ESA’s Gaia space observatory could measure the star’s wobble if Jupiter-mass planets are influencing it. The James Webb Space Telescope’s infrared vision may also provide more detailed images of the shadows.
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