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1st December 2003

Issued by the UK Astronomy Technology Centre

New evidence for Solar-like planetary system around nearby star

Astronomers at the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council's UK Astronomy Technology Centre (ATC) at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh have produced compelling new evidence that Vega, one of the brightest stars in the sky, has a planetary system around it which is more like our own Solar System than any other so far discovered.

All of the hundred or so planets that have been discovered around other stars have been very large gaseous (Jupiter-like) planets orbiting close to their star. This is very unlike our own Solar System. New computer modelling techniques have shown that observations of the structure of a faint dust disk around Vega can be best explained by a Neptune-like planet orbiting at a similar distance to Neptune in our own solar system and having similar mass. The wide orbit of the Neptune-like planet means that there is plenty of room inside it for small rocky planets similar to the Earth - the Holy Grail for astronomers wanting to know whether we are alone in the Universe.

The modelling, which is described today (1 December 2003) in The Astrophysical Journal, is based on observations taken with the world's most sensitive submillimetre camera, SCUBA. The camera, built at the ATC, is operated on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. The SCUBA image shows a disk of very cold dust (-180 degrees Celsius) in orbit around the star.

"The irregular shape of the disk is the clue that it is likely to contain planets" explains astronomer Mark Wyatt, the author of the paper. "Although we can't directly observe the planets, they have created clumps in the disk of dust around the star."

The modelling suggests that the Neptune-like planet actually formed much closer to the star than its current position. As it moved out to its current wide orbit over about 56 million years, many comets were swept out with it, causing the dust disk to be clumpy.

"Exactly the same process is thought to have happened in our Solar System", said Wyatt, "Neptune was 'pushed' away from the Sun because of the presence of Jupiter orbiting inside it". So it appears that as well as having a Neptune-like planet, Vega may also have a more massive Jupiter-like planet in a smaller orbit.

The model can be tested in two ways as Wayne Holland, who made the original observations, explains "The model predicts that the clumps in the disk will rotate around the star once every three hundred years. If we take more observations after a gap of a few years we should see the movement of the clumps. Also the model predicts the finer detail of the disk's clumpiness which can be confirmed using the next generation of telescopes and cameras."

Paradoxically the star barely appears in the SCUBA image because it is far too hot to be seen with this kind of detector. Vega is, however, easily seen with the naked eye. It is the third brightest star visible from Northern latitudes and is bluish-white in colour. Tonight you can see it in the west at around 7 pm.

Facts about Vega:

  • Vega is the fifth brightest star in the sky and the third brightest visible in the Northern hemisphere.
  • It is 25 light years away from the Sun (1AU is the distance between the Earth and Sun).
  • It has a diameter three times bigger than the Sun.
  • It is 58 times brighter than the Sun.
  • Together with Deneb and Altair, Vega forms the summer triangle.
  • Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, the Harp. The lyre, or harp, is supposed to have been invented by the Greek God Hermes who gave it to his half-brother Apollo. Apollo then gave it to his son Orpheus, the musician of the Argonauts.
  • Vega was the first star ever to be photographed. During the night of July 16-17 1850 the historic picture was taken at Harvard Observatory using a 15 inch refractor telescope during a 100 second exposure.

Images

SCUBA image: This is a false colour image of the heat emitted from the dust disk around Vega. The image shows the disk seen face-on. The disk structure includes two bright clumps, represented by the yellow and red colours. The star is barely noticeable and is located at the centre of the image, mid-way between the two clumps. The dust we're seeing is actually confined to a region relatively far from the star: more than twice as far as the distance from the Sun to Neptune. The lack of dust close to the star is the first indication that a planetary system is hiding in the hole. The modelling published today implies that this system looks very much like our own Solar System.

SCUBA image with the position of the star (*) and the predicted position and direction of the planet (x) marked. The distance between the star and the planet is equivalent to twice that between the Sun and Neptune.

Sky map showing the position of Vega as seen from the United Kingdom (and similar latitudes) tonight at 7pm (1 December 2003 19:00 GMT)

Notes for editors

The UK ATC

The UK Astronomy Technology Centre is located at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh (ROE). It is a scientific site belonging to the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC). The mission of the UK ATC is to support the mission and strategic aims of PPARC and to help keep the UK at the forefront of world astronomy by providing a UK focus for the design, production and promotion of state of the art astronomical technology.

The ROE

The Royal Observatory, Edinburgh comprises the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), the Institute for Astronomy (IfA) of the University of Edinburgh and the ROE Visitor Centre.

The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT)

The JCMT is the world's largest single-dish submillimetre telescope. It collects faint submillimetre signals with its 15 metre diameter dish. It is situated near the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii, at an altitude of approximately 4000 metres (14000 feet) above sea level. It is operated by the Joint Astronomy Centre, on behalf of the UK Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, the Canadian National Research Council, and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

SCUBA

SCUBA (the Submillimetre Common-User Bolometer Array) is the world's most powerful submillimetre camera. It is attached to the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, and contains sensitive detectors called bolometers, which are cooled to 60 milliKelvin, 0.06 degrees above absolute zero (60 milliKelvin is about -273.1 Celsius, -459.6 Fahrenheit). SCUBA was built in the UK by the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, at what is now the UK Astronomy Technology Centre.

PPARC

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the UK's strategic science investment agency. It funds research, education and public understanding in four broad areas of science - particle physics, astronomy, cosmology and space science. PPARC is government funded and provides research grants and studentships to scientists in British universities, gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, CERN, the European Southern Observatory and the European Space Agency. It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility.

Contacts

  • Eleanor Gilchrist (Mon-Wed)
    PR Officer, ROE
    +44 (0) 131 668 8397
    efg@roe.ac.uk
  • Dr Mark Wyatt
    Astronomer, UK ATC
    +44 (0) 131 668 8318
    wyatt@roe.ac.uk
  • Dr Wayne Holland
    Astronomer, UK ATC
    +44 (0) 131 668 8389
    wsh@roe.ac.uk
  • Julia Maddock
    Press Officer, PPARC
    +44 (0) 1793 442094
    Julia.maddock@pparc.ac.uk
  • Dr Douglas Pierce Price
    James Clerk Maxwell Telescope
    +1 808 969 6524
    outreach@jach.hawaii.edu

Web links

UK Astronomy Technology Centre
http://www.roe.ac.uk/atc
Joint Astronomy Centre
http://outreach.jach.hawaii.edu/
Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC)
http://www.pparc.ac.uk/
Contact: JAC outreach. Updated: Thu May 24 14:59:34 HST 2007

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