Friday, November 21, 2008

Another Young Planet Imaged?? In Beta Pic??

They seem to be coming fast and furious now -- which is expected, since the minute someone finds a winning formula, everyone tries to duplicate it.  A French team appears to have imaged a large gas giant (8x the mass of Jupiter) inside the dust debris disk surrounding the famous young star Beta Pictoris using the VLT (Very Large Telescope) in Chile.  The planet is apparently 8 AU (AU=Earth-Sun distance) from its parent star, which is supposedly the exact distance needed to explain the dynamics of the dust in the disk.

The reason I'm using these qualifiers is that unlike the previous detections, this one has not been confirmed by a second set of observations at a later time (in order to track the motion of the planet).  They are using arguments like "It's in the same orbital planet as the disk, and it's the right distance away, and... I really want it to be a planet...", but until they have conclusive proof that the object is actually bound to the star, this will have to be considered a "planet candidate".

But they are definitely right that it would fit in very nicely with previous results.  The Beta Pic disk is one of the most well-studied debris disks, and has long been known to have a very distinctive warp (see pic here) that is explained well by a planet on an inclined orbit at less than 20 AU (paper here).  However, we have no idea if the imaged object is on an inclined orbit, a circular orbit, an eccentric orbit, or any other kind of orbit - we have no information.  So we're going to have to wait and see if all the pieces fit together.

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