Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, an international team of astronomers has been able to study the short-lived disc of material around a young star that is in the early stages of making a planetary system. For the first time, a smaller companion could be detected that may be the cause of the large gap found in the disc. Future observations will determine whether this companion is a planet or a brown dwarf. (Brown dwarfs are relatively cool, star-like objects between planets and stars in size. They are not massive enough to fuse hydrogen in their cores, but are larger than giant planets such as Jupiter.)
Planets form from the discs of material around young stars, but the transition from dust disc to planetary system is rapid and few objects are caught during this phase. One such object is T Chamaeleontis (T Cha), a faint star in the small southern constellation of Chamaeleon that is comparable to the Sun, but very near the beginning of its life. T Cha lies about 350 light-years from the Earth and is only about seven million years old. Up to now no forming planets have been found in these transitional discs, although planets in more mature discs have been seen before.
“Earlier studies had shown that T Cha was an excellent target for studying how planetary systems form,” notes Johan Olofsson (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg, Germany), one of the lead authors of two papers in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics that describe the new work. “But this star is quite distant and the full power of the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) was needed to resolve very fine details and see what is going on in the dust disc.”
The astronomers first observed T Cha using the observatory’s AMBER (Astronomical Multi-Beam combineR) instrument and the VLTI to combine the light from all four of the 8.2-meter VLT Unit Telescopes and create a “virtual telescope” 130 meters across. They found that some of the disc material formed a narrow dusty ring only about 20 million kilometers from the star. Beyond this inner disc, they found a region devoid of dust with the outer part of the disc stretching out into regions beyond about 1.1 billion kilometers from the star.
Nuria Huelamo (Centro de Astrobiologia, ESAC, Spain), the lead author of the second paper, takes up the story: “For us, the gap in the dust disc around T Cha was a smoking gun, and we asked ourselves: Could we be witnessing a companion digging a gap inside its protoplanetary disc?”
However, finding a faint companion so close to a bright star is a huge challenge and the team had to use an adaptive-optics instrument called NACO in a novel and powerful way, called “sparse aperture masking,” to reach their goal. After careful analysis they found the clear signature of an object located within the gap in the dust disc, about one billion kilometers from the star—slightly farther out than Jupiter is in our Solar System. This is the first detection of an object much smaller than a star within a gap in the planet-forming dust disc around a young star.