For as long as it’s been active, Hubble has been capturing breathtaking images of celestial bodies and events at which astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts could marvel at. One of its most remarkable pictures is the one it took of Beta Pictoris. This over 20-million-year-old star is surrounded by a one-of-a-kind protoplanetary disk. After watching Beta Pictoris for some time now, astronomers working with the Hubble Space Telescope have released a visible-light image of stellar debris being distorted by the presence of an enormous exoplanet.
What’s unique about Beta Pictoris, which lies approximately 63 light-years from our own solar system, is that it is a young star, during its main evolution sequence stage. Its protoplanetary disk will slowly congeal and form the planets which will surround the star.
Hubble has repeatedly observed this unique star before. Pictures it took in 1997 and 2012 are now being compared in order to check for changes in an apparently unchanging sky. Astronomers had predicted that, as Beta Pictoris has an estimated orbital period of 18 to 20 years, its protoplanetary disk would experience changes in the 15 years that have passed between Hubble’s two observations. However, there is no visible shift in the morphology of the exoplanet’s protoplanetary disk.
Protoplanetary Disk Features and Changes
“Some computer simulations predicted a complicated structure for the inner disk due to the gravitational pull by the short-period giant planet,”
Daniel Apai with the University of Arizona said.
What Hubble’s most recent pictures have done is to validate the models that scientists have been constructing. Astronomers observed that the dust surrounding Beta Pictoris together with the exoplanet orbit the star in a sort of unison, “like a carousel”, as the Hubble news release wrote. Basically, both the disc and the exoplanet have a similar orbital period and move smoothly and continuously around the young star.
Beta Pictoris- Not the Typical Young Star
Because of its relative proximity to Earth, this young star can be considered a sort of protoplanetary Petri-dish for astronomers to study. There is a limitation, however, to this seemingly ideal situation. Normally, you would expect that, when presented with the opportunity of studying a young star, astronomers would rejoice with the possibility of using it as the root of extrapolation when it comes to solar-system formation. But, as Glenn Schneider, University of Arizona professor explains, the protoplanetary disk surrounding Beta Pictoris may not be the best archetype although it is an excellent circumstellar debris system prototype.
On the one hand, Beta Pictoris has a bright protoplanetary disk. The fact that it can be easily seen is due to the large amounts of light-scattering dust. Here, asteroids and comets are continuously colliding with one and other. As a result of these collisions, large quantities of dust are to be found in the disk. On the other hand, astronomers have identified a feature inside the disk that they believe stems from the destruction of a Mars-sized body.
Image Source: News Discovery and Space Telescope