Astronomers May Have Found a New Way to Identify Exoplanets

Saturday, 31 October 2015 - 11:28AM
Astrophysics
NASA
Saturday, 31 October 2015 - 11:28AM
Astronomers May Have Found a New Way to Identify Exoplanets
There are currently a number of ways that astrophysicists are able to locate and discover the existence of exoplanets, including processes like the transit method, gravitational lensing, astrometry, and direct imaging. Now, it looks like one more method can be added to the list. According to NASA, some astronomers now believe that they can identify young exoplanets by looking for spiral structures in a star's circumstellar disk.

For those who may not know, a circumstellar (or protoplanetary) disk is in essence a very early solar system. Stars form as clouds of gas and dust collapse in on themselves and rotate. The center of these masses heats up as gravitational energy converts to thermal energy, and they then become stars. The rest of the matter which rotates about it eventually coalesces into planets, dwarf planets, and other solar satellites, and the end result is a system not unlike our own.

Some scientists now believe that some of the spiral structures observed in these circumstellar disks are evidence of massive objects such as exoplanets. Ruobing Dong, one of the astrophysicists to work on the study, had this to say about it:

Opening quote
It's difficult to see suspected planets inside a bright disk surrounding a young star. Based on this study, we are convinced that planets can gravitationally excite structures in the disk. So if you can identify features in a disk and convince yourself those features are created by an underlying planet that you cannot see, this would be a smoking gun of forming planets.
Closing quote


This computer model shows how a massive exoplanet would affect the surrounding gas and dust of a circumstellar disk. The following image is of an actual protoplanetary disk that is believed to be an example of how protoplanets could be causing spiral formations within the disk.   

These scientists have founded their theory on calculations and computer simulations that describe what should be happening in circumstellar disks if these exoplanets existed within them. This new method could certainly help astronomers come to a greater understanding of the evolution of planetary systems and maybe even lend insight about the formation and evolution of planet Earth.

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Astrophysics
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