Nav: Home

Three exocomets discovered around the star Beta Pictoris

May 22, 2019

Just about a year after the launch of the NASA mission TESS, the first three comets orbiting the nearby star Beta Pictoris outside our solar system were discovered in data from the space telescope. The main goal of TESS is to search for exoplanets - planets orbiting other stars. The recognition of signals from much smaller exocomets compared to planets requires the analysis of a precise light curve, which can now be obtained using the technical sophistication of the new space telescope.

Sebastian Zieba, Master's student in the team of Konstanze Zwintz at the Institute of Astro- and Particle Physics at the University of Innsbruck, discovered the signal of the exocomets when he investigated the TESS light curve of Beta Pictoris in March this year. "The data showed a significant decrease in the intensity of the light of the observed star. These variations due to darkening by an object in the star's orbit can clearly be related to a comet," Sebastian Zieba and Konstanze Zwintz explain the sensational discovery.

In collaboration with Matthew Kenworthy from Leiden University (Netherlands) and Grant Kennedy from the University of Warwick (UK), they analysed and interpreted the signals of the exocomets. The results will now be published in the international journal "Astronomy and Astrophysics". Three similar exocomet systems have recently been found around three other stars during data analysis by NASA's Kepler mission. The researchers suggest that exocomets are more likely to be found around young stars. "The space telescope Kepler concentrated on older stars similar to the Sun in a relatively small area in the sky. TESS, on the other hand, observes stars all over the sky, including young stars. We therefore expect further discoveries of this kind in the future," says Konstanze Zwintz. Zwintz's research focuses on young stars and she is regarded as an internationally renowned expert in the field of asteroseismology.

Dr Grant Kennedy, from the University of Warwick Department of Physics, assisted with the modelling and interpretation of the data. He said: "This discovery is really important for the science of extrasolar comets for several reasons. Beta Pictoris had been thought to host exocomets for three decades from a different technique, and the TESS data provide long overdue and independent evidence for their existence. Our next aim is to find similar signatures around other stars, and this discovery shows that TESS is up to the task."

Famous star

The young and very bright star Beta Pictoris is a "celebrity" among astronomers for many reasons: "Already in the 1980s, investigations of Beta Pictoris provided convincing evidence for planetary systems around stars other than our Sun - a decade before exoplanets were even discovered for the first time. In addition, there was already indirect evidence for comets at that time based on the characteristic signature of evaporating gas coming off them," adds Konstanze Zwintz. At about 23 million years old, Beta Pictoris is a relatively young star, "a young adult star compared to human age," says the astronomer.

The discovery of exocomets around Beta Pictoris was predicted in 1999 in a paper by the astrophysicists Alain Lecavelier des Etangs, Alfred Vidal-Madjar and Roger Ferlet. "Together with our colleagues from Leiden and Warwick, we are pleased to have finally confirmed this theory," say Zieba and Zwintz. The scientists expect to discover many more comets and asteroids in this area, as it is a young star. "In the future, we want to find answers to the question of how often exocomets occur and whether their number really decreases with the age of a star. Information about this is important because by analysing the comets around a young star we can also draw conclusions about the history of our own solar system. Because we know that our solar system showed considerably more comets in 'young years'", explains Konstanze Zwintz.

In the future, the researchers want to investigate the composition of exocomets, for example regarding their water content. The comets themselves are smaller than exoplanets, but have very large tails, which can be up to many millions of kilometres long. "What we are seeing is not the comet nucleus itself, but the material blown off the comet and trailing behind it. So the TESS data do not tell us how big the comets were, since the extent of the dust tail could be very big and not very dense, or less big and more dense. Both situations would give the same light curve," explains Zwintz.
-end-
Publication: A transiting exocomet detected in broadband light by TESS in the β Pictoris system. Sebastian Zieba, Konstanze Zwintz, Matthew A. Kenworthy, Grant M. Kennedy.

arXiv:1903.11071v1 [astro-ph.SR]

https://arxiv.org/abs/1903.11071v1

University of Innsbruck

Related Solar System Articles:

From rocks in Colorado, evidence of a 'chaotic solar system'
Plumbing a 90 million-year-old layer cake of sedimentary rock in Colorado, a team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Northwestern University has found evidence confirming a critical theory of how the planets in our solar system behave in their orbits around the sun.
Why are there different 'flavors' of iron around the Solar System?
New work from Carnegie's Stephen Elardo and Anat Shahar shows that interactions between iron and nickel under the extreme pressures and temperatures similar to a planetary interior can help scientists understand the period in our Solar System's youth when planets were forming and their cores were created.
Does our solar system have an undiscovered planet? You can help astronomers find out
ASU's Adam Schneider and colleagues are hunting for runaway worlds in the space between stars, and citizen scientists can join the search with a new NASA-funded website.
Rare meteorites challenge our understanding of the solar system
Researchers have discovered minerals from 43 meteorites that landed on Earth 470 million years ago.
New evidence on the formation of the solar system
International research involving a Monash University scientist is using new computer models and evidence from meteorites to show that a low-mass supernova triggered the formation of our solar system.
Planet Nine could spell doom for solar system
The solar system could be thrown into disaster when the sun dies if the mysterious 'Planet Nine' exists, according to research from the University of Warwick.
Theft behind Planet 9 in our solar system
Through a computer-simulated study, astronomers at Lund University in Sweden show that it is highly likely that the so-called Planet 9 is an exoplanet.
Studying the solar system with NASA's Webb Telescope
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will look across vast distances to find the earliest stars and galaxies and study the atmospheres of mysterious worlds orbiting other stars.
'This solar system isn't big enough for the both of us.' -- Jupiter
It's like something out of an interplanetary chess game. Astrophysicists at the University of Toronto have found that a close encounter with Jupiter about four billion years ago may have resulted in another planet's ejection from the Solar System altogether.
IBEX sheds new light on solar system boundary
In 14 papers published in the October 2015 Astrophysical Journal Supplement, scientists present findings from NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, mission providing the most definitive analyses, theories and results about local interstellar space to date.

Related Solar System Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Digital Manipulation
Technology has reshaped our lives in amazing ways. But at what cost? This hour, TED speakers reveal how what we see, read, believe — even how we vote — can be manipulated by the technology we use. Guests include journalist Carole Cadwalladr, consumer advocate Finn Myrstad, writer and marketing professor Scott Galloway, behavioral designer Nir Eyal, and computer graphics researcher Doug Roble.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#529 Do You Really Want to Find Out Who's Your Daddy?
At least some of you by now have probably spit into a tube and mailed it off to find out who your closest relatives are, where you might be from, and what terrible diseases might await you. But what exactly did you find out? And what did you give away? In this live panel at Awesome Con we bring in science writer Tina Saey to talk about all her DNA testing, and bioethicist Debra Mathews, to determine whether Tina should have done it at all. Related links: What FamilyTreeDNA sharing genetic data with police means for you Crime solvers embraced...