Formation site of giant ice planet discovered around nearby star

Astronomers have found signs of an alien world growing around TW Hydrae

ALMA image of the disk around the young star TW Hydrae. Several gaps are clearly depicted. Image Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Tsukagoshi et al.

ALMA image of the disc around the young star TW Hydrae. Several gaps are clearly depicted. Image Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Tsukagoshi et al.

Astronomers have found signs of a growing planet around TW Hydra, a nearby young star, using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Based on the distance from the central star and the distribution of tiny dust grains, the baby planet is thought to be an icy giant, similar to Uranus and Neptune in our Solar System. This result is another step towards understanding the origins of various types of planets.

A number of extrasolar planets have been found in the past two decades and now researchers agree that planets can have a wide variety of characteristics. However, it is still unclear how this diversity emerges. Especially, there is still debate about how the icy giant planets, such as Uranus and Neptune, form.

To take a close look at the planet formation site, a research team led by Takashi Tsukagoshi at Ibaraki University, Japan, observed the young star TW Hydrae. This star, estimated to be 10 million years old, is one of the closest young stars to the Earth. Thanks to the proximity and the fact that its axis of rotation points roughly in the Earth’s direction, giving us a face-on-view of the developing planetary system, TW Hydrae is one of the most favourable targets for investigating planet formation.

Past observations have shown that TW Hydrae is surrounded by a disk made of tiny dust particles. This disk is the site of planet formation. Recent ALMA observations revealed multiple gaps in the disc. Some theoretical studies suggest that the gaps are evidence of planet formation.

Artist's impression of the dust disk and a forming planet around TW Hydrae. Image Credit: NAOJ

Artist’s impression of the dust disk and a forming planet around TW Hydrae. Image Credit: NAOJ

The team observed the disc around TW Hydrae with ALMA in two radio frequencies. Since the ratio of the radio intensities in different frequencies depends on the size of the dust grains, researchers can estimate the size of dust grains. The ratio indicates that smaller, micrometer-sized, dust particles dominate and larger dust particles are absent in the most prominent gap with a radius of 22 Astronomical Units (22 times the average distance between the Sun and Earth).

Why are smaller dust particles selectively located in the gap in the disc? Theoretical studies have predicted that a gap in the disc is created by a massive planet, and that gravitational interaction and friction between gas and dust particles push the larger dust out from the gap, while the smaller particles remain in the gap. The current observation results match these theoretical predictions.

Researchers calculated the mass of the unseen planet based on the width and depth of the 22 AU gap and found that the planet is probably a little more massive than the Neptune. “Combined with the orbit size and the brightness of TW Hydrae, the planet would be an icy giant planet like Neptune,” says Tsukagoshi.

Following this result, the team is planning further observations to better understand planet formation. One of their plans is to observe the polarisation of the radio waves. Recent theoretical studies have shown that the size of dust grains can be estimated more precisely with polarisation observations. The other plan is to measure the amount of gas in the disc. Since gas is the major component of the disc, the researchers hope to attain a better estimation of the mass of the forming planet.

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