Binary planetary systems caught in the act of forming!

By Phil Plait | July 2, 2009 7:00 am

Astronomers have discovered a young binary system where both stars are surrounded by thick disks of material that are in the process of forming planets! And it’s a near thing, too — this system almost didn’t exist at all.

First, the cool image:

SMA and HST view of 253-1536

On the right is a Hubble Space Telescope image of the two stars (collectively called, weirdly, 253-1536). In the optical, the disk enveloping the star on the left (called 253-53 a, so I’ll just call it Star A) is obvious. It’s dark because it blocks most of the light from the star, which is deeply embedded in the disk and can barely be seen. The star on the right (Star B) has a disk as well, but it’s far smaller than the other star’s disk, and swamped by the light of the star. So the components of this binary are like Jekyll and Hyde: one star is blocked by the dark disk, and in the other the disk is outglared by the bright star.

The image on the left was made using the Submillimeter Array, or SMA. At this wavelength (almost out in the radio part of the spectrum) the warm dust in the disks is bright, and the stars are almost completely dark. The disk on the right becomes obvious. Using some relatively simple math, the mass of the disks can be calculated (basically by measuring the size and brightness of the disks): Star A’s disk on the left has a mass of about 70 times that of Jupiter, and Star B’s disk is about 20 times Jupiter’s mass.

Our entire solar system of planets (that is, everything except the Sun) has roughly twice the mass of Jupiter. So what we’re seeing here is easily enough material to make a fully-fledged system of planets! In fact, this is the very first time a binary star, where both stars are detected in visible light, has been seen where each has a disk capable of making planets.

SCUBA Orion

Very cool. And, actually, rather lucky for these stars. They are located inside the vast Orion Nebula, a star-making factory about 1300 light years from Earth. In the heart of the nebula is a cluster of stars containing extremely massive, hot, and bright stars. The starlight from those beacons is so fierce that it actually disrupts disks around nearby young stars; the ultraviolet light boils away the dust in a process called photoevaporation. As you can see in this image (which I took from the scientific journal paper about these observations) 253-1536 is located about a parsec away (more than 3 light years) from the center of the nebula, sparing it from the harshest effects of those bright stars. Had it been much closer, the disks around the two stars would have boiled away by now.

In a few million years, both these stars may have actual planets orbiting them. Star B is a red dwarf, cool and dim, and it’s not clear what type of star A is. Probably not terribly massive, and I’m guessing somewhat less massive than the Sun.

Imagine what the sky would look like from such a planet! From Star A’s planets, for example, Star B would be an intense red glare in the sky, far far brighter than Venus appears from Earth. The position of the other star in the sky would change slowly as the two stars complete their 4500 year long orbit. And if you look away from the other star, you’d be looking deep into the heart of the nebula, where a dozen or more stars would shine almost as brightly as the Moon does from Earth! And, of course, you’d see the nebula itself stretched across half your sky, glowing red, green, and white.

I would sorely love to see such a thing. Wow. Whatever life that eventually evolves there would be very lucky to get such a view… and they’d have another advantage over us. The two stars of 253-1563 are separated by only about 400 times the Earth-Sun distance, about ten times the distance of Pluto from the Earth. If they really had the will, life there could visit the other system! It would be a technical achievement and difficult to be sure, but we’re almost there ourselves.

Hmph. I do believe I’m jealous of a hypothetical life form that won’t even exist for billions of years, if it ever does! Come to think of it, though, by the time any life there has the tech savvy to build rockets, all those bright stars in the nebula will have long since exploded as supernovae… and worse, at a distance of only a few light years, those titanic explosions will do serious damage to any planets, and in fact could blow away those disks long before planets could form.

So maybe planets never will get a chance to exist there. Wow, again: I went from jealous to sad awfully quickly. But such is life in the Universe. I suppose I should just be glad that we here on Earth are clever enough to create telescopes to give us a view of such a remarkable system, and that allows us to appreciate what we see… and what we’ve got already.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (38)

  1. Stone Age Scientist

    253-1536 ?? No wonder E.T. had it in his head to phone home.

  2. Metre

    Hmm, I’m not sure that you would be able to see much of the Orion Nebula itself from a planet orbiting these stars. The nebula would be spread over the entire sky, so no part of it would be very bright (luminance) to the eye. Maybe you could see a bright patch or two, but I suspect most of it would be very dim, perhaps below visual threshold (at least for humans – who knows about the life forms on those planets?)

  3. IVAN3MAN

    Err… Phil, typo in the fifth paragraph, last line: “… has ben seen where each has a disk capable of making planets.”; that should be been. ;-)

  4. Stone Age Scientist

    Phil, in one of your recent entries, it was stated that the Solar System traverses in and out of the Milky Way’s gas clouds at regular periods of X million years (now more than 140M years due to the lessening of the number of MW’s galactic arms).

    So what are the chances of Orion’s newborn system moving out of the house, and out of the nebulaic neighborhood?

  5. IVAN3MAN

    Phil Plait:

    Come to think of it, though, by the time any life there has the tech savvy to build rockets, all those bright stars in the nebula will have long since exploded as supernovae… and worse, at a distance of only a few light years, those titanic explosions will do serious damage to any planets, and in fact could blow away those disks long before planets could form.

    Well, maybe not if those stars with protoplanetary disks drift away from the nebula in time before those blue giant stars explode as supernovae.

  6. Stone Age Scientist

    Hi Metre @ #2,

    I would imagine a nebula contains not a few very radiant stars. According to Wikipedia, these young stars inside nebulas emit strong UV radiation that lights up the surrounding gas (by turning it into plasma through the process of ionisation).

  7. Stone Age Scientist

    Ivan3Man @ #3,

    What are you talking about??

    Has Ben seen where each has a disk capable of making planets?

    is a valid sentence. :)

  8. Metre

    @ Stone Age Scientist #6.
    True, but I still think the luminance of the nebular material would be low, expecially when compared to the brightness of those big stars. The eyes cannot collect light like a camera. You might get hazy patches near a few brighter stars, but I don’t think the whole sky would be bathed in bright, visible, well-defined nebulosity. I could be wrong, but my experience is that nebulas can be made to appear very bright in photgraphs, but are very hard to see visually (and the bigger they are, the harder they are to see).

  9. I’m amazed we haven’t seen a reference to this being a future home for Tatooine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tatooine) yet…I’m guessing because to us the stars appear pretty different to us…or because this isn’t a long time ago, but rather would be in the future and isn’t far far away, but is fairly close by

  10. J Earley

    Poul Anderson probably could have figured out a way to stick a habitable planet in the area to get your view, Phil. He was pretty creative about using good physics (he was a physics major, if I remember correctly) to find ways to create interesting stellar systems. Thanks for the interesting post.

  11. Your prediction of what will happen to those life forms reminds me of this:
    http://lucis.net/stuff/clarke/star_clarke.html

    Maybe that will be them, however, visiting _us_.

  12. Lars

    But… but, SMA has to stand for SubMega Array. If it was Submillimeter Array, it would have been SmmA! I’m shocked. :S

  13. Tim G

    I’ve wondered how astronomy and the space programs on Earth would have progressed if the Sun had a twin companion star with an Earth-like planet instead of an outer Solar System. For a Sun-sized star orbiting between 50 AU and 200 AU, the period would be about one thousand years. So we would have already had about a half-dozen perihelions in history. If the companion star was approaching perihelion at the dawn of the space age, we’d have a definite window of opportunity for a relatively short journey.

    If my calculations are correct, at aphelion the companion would be a magintude -15 star (ten times brighter than the full moon). It would creep along the ecliptic at a rate of one degree every nine years. Its apparent brightness and apparent speed would gradually increase by a factor of 16 as it reaches the opposite side of the ecliptic. Depending on the time of year, you could get an extended dusk or dawn. Our moon would take over a minute to occult the star at periapsis and one quarter this time at apoapsis. Would Kepler’s Laws be inferred at an earlier point in history? Perhaps early telescopes could have picked up terrestrial planets around the companion. Later in history, the twin’s moon would have allowed astronomers to pin down its mass and spectroscopic observations would have detected oxygen in the atmosphere. Within fifty years of walking on the moon, we’d likely also have footprints on Mars and imaged continents from Earth’s twin from second generation optical space telescopes. An armada of probes could have already been on the way for flybys and landings. NASA would have little trouble getting funding for developing fusion propulsion.

  14. cool cool. great blog. we just need a bit of warp speed to go see for ourselfs, that is if they are still there…?

  15. Jeff

    No need for pessimism, because the best is yet to come. 5 years from now, you’ll be posting results from Kepler with probably hundreds of earth-sized planets it discovered. Then we’ll get a really good picture of “solar systems” instead of these strange exoplanets they’ve found since 1995.

  16. FC

    Posts like these are the reason I visit the blog, not that the rest are bad or something, but sometimes (not often) a week goes by and I’m like: ok where’s the “Astronomy” in the Bad Astronomy blog?

  17. Stone Age Scientist

    To Metre @ #8,

    Of course, it makes sense that photographs should be enhanced to complement typographical quality. But who would have thought that nebulas (as seen from the outside) are actually dimmer than their printed depictions? Remind us that it is high-tech gadgetries that make it possible for us to see them. Thank you.

    Hmmm, if your hunch is correct, then the nightsky of that planet would be mostly starless, too, save for some very radiant patches here and there, right?

  18. Calamity Janeway

    Great post; really stokes the imagination. I’d love to see an artist’s rendering of that view.

  19. DrFlimmer

    @ metre

    It is possible from a dark location on earth to actually see the Orion Nebula with your unaided eyes. It is clearly visible in a small telescope. Being close to it would practically ease the view. Of course there are bright stars nearby. But you should be able to see the nebula nonetheless, because the stars are mostly dots.
    I think the biggest challenge is the companion star. It is likely that it is up at “night”, so it could be hard to achieve a clear “night” at all on such planets.

  20. Metre

    @ DrFlimmer #19
    What you say about the companion star is a good point – it would have quite an impact on what you can and cannot see. The other stars within the nebula would also be closer to these planets than is typical in our neck of the galaxy, so there would be many bright stars in the night (and maybe daytime)sky. But the nebula would probably attenuate the light from distant background stars outside the nebula, so there would probably be few background stars to be seen. There would also be nearby clouds of dark dust obscuring everything behind them. It would definitiely be a different night sky than we’re used to.

    But I still think the glow of the nebula in general would be faint and probably indiscernible. I can see the Orion nebula easily with my unaided eye, but at 500x in my telescope it’s dim to the point of being unseeable.

  21. Tony

    How far apart are they in AUs from each other?

  22. DrFlimmer

    @ Tony #21:

    Take the scale on the pictures and measure ;) I fast guess would be about 300 AU.

  23. Russell

    I wonder if there is a star named 867-5309

  24. @21. Tony & 22. DrFlimmer:
    He says in the post that Stars A and B are about 400 AU apart.

  25. Gary Ansorge

    Any analyses yet of the metallic content of the debris cloud? Life seems to require a quite eclectic combination of metals to grow.

    So many stars and planets birthing, so long to wait for them to live,,,

    Well, I’m patient,,,

    GAry 7

  26. Stone Age Scientist
  27. Keith Harwood

    I don’t think star B would be seen as `an intense red glare’ from star A. If star B is a red dwarf its surface temperature will be more than 3000K. In other words, about the temperature of a tungsten light bulb. Star B would be slightly yellower than star A. (To a human eye, that is.) IIRC, the only stars which really look red are the carbon stars, where the molecular carbon absorbs the blue wavelengths and the spectrum of the star is a long way from black-body. OK, brown dwarfs will also look red, but we are talking about Real stars here.

    I think Dave Malin wrote a book about this.

  28. 7. Stone Age Scientist Says:
    What are you talking about??
    Has Ben seen where each has a disk capable of making planets?
    is a valid sentence. :)

    How did “Lost” become involved?

    :)

    J/P=?

  29. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    life there could visit the other system!

    Heh! I never imagined that the stupid creationist hypothesis of a privileged planet would so soon be torpedoed by facts. [envious] And if we find these close neighbor systems so early on, moving from observing exoplanets to observing exoplanet systems as Jeff notes, they will likely be common. [/envious]

    Life seems to require a quite eclectic combination of metals to grow.

    So it would seem, but also it seems that every time they find a protein with a specific characteristic they find a variant or a loss. Photosensitive systems have been found using several metals, oxygenating systems likewise or a total loss such as that cold sea fish they found that have no oxygen carrying blood cells at all.

    My newest favorite example is prions, I read recently that these proteins are found to have a large part that is “amorphous”, non-rigid, which perhaps is connected to their ability switch to an infective form. Maybe they aren’t the first such proteins found, but if true it seems to me they break the idea that proteins have to find definitive characteristic foldings (and sometimes alternate ones).

    At a guess the list of metals used are decided as everything else evolutionary, by contingency.

  30. StevoR

    Superluminous! :-)

    Hadn’t heard about this – thanks for posting it BA.

    @ 8. Metre Says:

    @ Stone Age Scientist #6 : True, but I still think the luminance of the nebular material would be low, especially when compared to the brightness of those big stars. The eyes cannot collect light like a camera. You might get hazy patches near a few brighter stars, but I don’t think the whole sky would be bathed in bright, visible, well-defined nebulosity. I could be wrong, but my experience is that nebulas can be made to appear very bright in photographs, but are very hard to see visually (and the bigger they are, the harder they are to see).

    I’d second that. The reason we get so many marvellous astrophotos of nebulae I think comes down mainly to two words : Long exposure.

    That noted, I have read that the very largest nebulae may still be very impressive. Example : apparently if the Tarantula nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) was located as close as the Orion nebula (M 42) is to us it would be bright enough to cast shadows!

    @ 23. Russell : I wonder if there is a star named 867-5309

    Probably – if you call that a “name” rather than just a catalogue designation. There’s certainly a (Gliese) 876 which is kind of close … BTW. Gl 876 was one of the first red dwarfs discovered to have exoplanets, the lowest a 7 Earth mass, “Luciferean” or super-Venus / Hot Neptune type world.

    @ 27. Keith Harwood :

    I don’t think star B would be seen as `an intense red glare’ from star A. If star B is a red dwarf its surface temperature will be more than 3000K. In other words, about the temperature of a tungsten light bulb. Star B would be slightly yellower than star A. (To a human eye, that is.) IIRC, the only stars which really look red are the carbon stars, where the molecular carbon absorbs the blue wavelengths and the spectrum of the star is a long way from black-body. OK, brown dwarfs will also look red, but we are talking about Real stars here. I think Dave Malin wrote a book about this.

    Would that book be ‘Colours of the Galaxies’ by David Malin & Paul Murdin (Cambridge Uni. Press, 1984) by any chance?

    Carbon stars and red dwarf stars have similar temperatures but, as I understand it, carbon stars have much more carbon in their atmospheres to absorb more blue light making the star appear redder – there are also some rare examples of carbon dwarfs as well.*

    @ 19. DrFlimmer :

    I think the biggest challenge is the companion star. It is likely that it is up at “night”, so it could be hard to achieve a clear “night” at all on such planets.

    Sometimes sure but don’t forget there may be other times when the companion star is up in the daytime instead leaving some nights clear.

    Also remember the bright giants, supergiants and O-B type dwarfs all have some pretty impressive absolute magnitudes (intrinsic brightness’s) meaning that from thirty light years away they’ll be as bright or brighter than Venus at its brightest for us or even the crescent Moon. From closer still, well they’ll be very spectacular and able to be seen in the day as well. Rigel for instance has an absolute magnitude of minus seven or eight. So if it’s only a few light-years away and you do the math it may be as bright as the full moon – about minus twelve or so. Perhaps?

    Of course, this depends on the exact location of these stars to our binary system … & how much obscuring gas and dust lies in the path of their view.

    @ 9. Brent :

    I’m amazed we haven’t seen a reference to this being a future home for Tatooine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tatooine) yet…I’m guessing because to us the stars appear pretty different to us…or because this isn’t a long time ago, but rather would be in the future and isn’t far far away, but is fairly close by?

    There is already an exoplanet nicknamed “Tatooine” that orbits in a triple star system found some years ago now :

    “HD 188753 b or “Tatooine” : The first exoplanet found in a system with three stars. It orbits a G9 dwarf in 3.3 days with an orange dwarf binary beyond in an elliptical orbit ranging from 6 to 19 AU. The system lies 145 ly off in Cygnus. ”

    (From my personal exoplanet listings compiled from various sources.)

    * See “NewsNotes – Dwarf Carbon Stars” , P. 22 ‘Sky & Telescope’ February 2003.

    —–
    PS. Why is this post being held for moderation? Odd. No links in it or nothing. I’m curious about this & wondering what if anything I’ve done wrong? Is it too long or too many quotes or … what?

  31. Stone Age Scientist

    To John Paradox @ #28,

    How did “Lost” become involved?

    I honestly don’t know. Ask Phil. It was he who wrote that. :) I was just trying to point out to Mr. English teacher Ivan3Man the grammatical validity of the sentence.

    Knowing Phil’s proclivity for making pun, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he was making allusions to Lost.

  32. Gregg Weber

    I read #2 and see your point about not being able to see much. Think of it as looking at a glass shelled egg that is one foot away. (OK for you to think metric…). As you see the circumference of the shell, assuming you are looking at the major axis, you would be looking through the most glass and thus be able to have the best chance of seeing the shell. To you it would look like a ring. If you were inside the egg, even though it might be much closer, you would look through the shells thickness in every direction and can only detect the differences from one place to another.

    Is there any clouds nearby that we can’t see? I would suspect that we are outside the cloud that we were originally formed in and in the many years and rotations it’s remnants are probably far far away. Depending on how eccentric our orbit is when we left and what other gravity fields either of us got too close to, it could be closer, further, up meaning closer to one saucer plate, or down meaning closer to the other saucer plate stacked rim to rim, and many other varibles that you probably know much more about and I don’t have the time to list.

  33. ZERO

    This one needs way more views! B-)

  34. Krupin

    Traditional hypotheses about formation of planets by a method of a snowball suffer crash. All becomes clearer, that planetary systems are formed in double systems. And the relative positioning of planets is defined by influence of the second component.

    In my opinion planetary systems are formed namely in binary systems. Our solar system is no exception to this rule. The role of the second component in it make an underdeveloped Star – the Jupiter, which is formed by special way. Then Jupiter promotes formation of other planets. http://www.thescienceforum.com/viewtopic.php?t=15901&start=0

  35. John Tobin

    “and worse, at a distance of only a few light years, those titanic explosions will do serious damage to any planets, and in fact could blow away those disks long before planets could form.”

    Actually, the disk around a young star could survive so long as the supernova is more than a light year or so away. In fact, there is evidence that a supernova occured very year our solar system while it was forming. This means that our sun probably formed in a cluster, possibly like Orion. See the article from a few years ago:

    http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/061024_sun_sisters.html

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