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Updated: July 8th, 2008 05:26 PM CDT

NASA's Spitzer Finds Hints of Planet Birth Around Dead Star

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The finding also represents the missing piece in a puzzle that arose in 1992, when Aleksander Wolszczan of Pennsylvania State University found three planets circling a pulsar called PSR B1257+12. Those pulsar planets, two thes ize of Earth, were the first planets of any type ever discovered outside our solar system. Astronomers have since found indirect evidence the pulsar planets were born out of a dusty debris disk, but nobody had directly detected this kind of disk until now.

The pulsar observed by Spitzer, named 4U 0142+61, is 13,000 light-yearsaway in the Cassiopeia constellation. It was once a large, bright star with amass between 10 and 20 times that of our sun. The star probably survived for about 10 million years, until it collapsed under its own weight about 100,000 years ago and blasted apart in a supernova explosion.

Some of the debris, or "fallback," from that explosion eventually settled into a disk orbiting the shrunken remains of the star, or pulsar. Spitzer wasable to spot the warm glow of the dusty disk with its heat-seeking infrared "eyes." The disk orbits at a distance of about 1 million miles and probably contains about 10 Earth-masses of material.

Pulsars are a class of supernova remnants, called neutron stars, which are incredibly dense. They have masses about 1.4 times that of the sun squeezed into bodies only 10 miles wide. One teaspoon of a neutron star would weigh about 2 billion tons. Pulsar 4U 0142+61 is an X-ray pulsar, meaning that it spins and pulses with X-ray radiation.

Any planets around the stars that gave rise to pulsars would have been incinerated when the stars blew up. The pulsar disk discovered by Spitzer might represent the first step in the formation of a new, more exotic type of planetary system, similar to the one found by Wolszczan in 1992.


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