'Toddler' Solar System discovered

A disc of planetary debris similar to the Kuiper Belt is giving astronomers a glimpse into the evolution of our own Solar System.

Left: An image of HD 115600 with a bright ring of debris located just beyond a Pluto-like distance to the star
Right: a model of HD 115600's debris ring on the same scale
Credit: T. Currie

The discovery of a young planetary system similar to our own could help astronomers understand how our Solar System formed billions of years ago.

A disc of planetary debris, similar to the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune, has been observed surrounding a young star, named HD 115600.

It was discovered by a team of astronomers using the Gemini Planet Imager at the Gemini South telescope in Chile and is located 360 light years away in the Centaurus constellation. This is the first discovery made with the new Gemini instrument since operations began in 2014.

The disc is about 3.4 to 5.1 billion miles from its host star, which is roughly the same distance as the Kuiper Belt from the Sun. The brightness of the disc is also consistent with what would be caused by a composition of silicates and ice similar to the Kuiper Belt.

The sun-like star found in the study is in the Scorpius-Centaurus OB association, a 10 to 20 million year old region similar to the one in which the Sun was formed.

According to the current theory of the birth of our Solar System, clumps of dense material formed in a large molecular cloud of hydrogen, one of which eventually collapsed and formed a spinning disc called the solar nebula. The Sun formed at the centre of the disc and the surrounding planets formed via accretion in the cooler regions. It is thought that the Kuiper Belt was made up of the remnants of this process, meaning it could have formed much like the disc in the newly-discovered system. If true, this would mean the new system could look very similar to our own, once it develops.

“It’s almost like looking at the outer solar system when it was a toddler,” says principal investigator Thayne Currie, an astronomer at the Subaru Observatory in Hawaii.

“To be able to directly image planetary birth environments around other stars at orbital distances comparable to the solar system is a major advancement,” says Dr Nikku Madhusudhan of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, one of the paper’s co-authors. “Our discovery of a near-twin of the Kuiper Belt provides direct evidence that the planetary birth environment of the solar system may not be uncommon."

“In just one of our many 50-second exposures we could see what previous instruments failed to see in more than 50 minutes,” says Currie. “Over the next few years, I’m optimistic that GPI will reveal many more debris discs and young planets. Who knows what strange, new worlds we will find.”

Front image: artist's conception of a young planetary system
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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