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Hubble Captures Most Detailed Image Yet of Debris Disk

Feb 23, 2015 12:28 PM EST
Beta Pictoris debris disk
Pictured: The latest images to Hubble images taken in 1997 (top) compared to the new visible-light Hubble image (bottom).
(Photo : NASA, ESA, and D. Apai and G. Schneider (University of Arizona))

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has captured the most detailed image yet of the debris disk encircling Beta Pictoris, a 20-million-year-old star.

Beta Pictoris, located only 63 light-years from Earth, is the only star with a debris disk composed of gas and dust that also has a giant planet. This massive host planet, which was first discovered in 2009, distorts the Beta Pictoris disk in a way that scientists can study it. And because the planet's orbital period is relatively short at 18 to 22 years, astronomers can see large motion in just a few years.

"Some computer simulations predicted a complicated structure for the inner disk due to the gravitational pull by the short-period giant planet," Daniel Apai, one of the researchers, said in a news release. "The new images reveal the inner disk and confirm the predicted structures. This finding validates models, which will help us to deduce the presence of other exoplanets in other disks."

Though Hubble has now given astronomers the most detailed and up-close images of Beta Pictoris' debris disk - to within about 650 million miles of the star - it is not the first time the star has been photographed. Since Hubble last imaged the disk, it appears that the dust distribution has barely changed over 15 years, despite the fact that the entire structure is orbiting the star like a carousel. This means the disk's structure is smoothly continuous in the direction of its rotation on the timescale, roughly, of the accompanying planet's orbital period.

Hubble credits its amazing images, in part, to the fact that the disk is easily seen due to its tilted position and brightness - it contains a large amount of starlight-scattering dust. Beta Pictoris is also the first and best example of what a young planetary system looks like.

The findings reveal a bit more about the star and its dusty, gas-filled disk. This, in turn, may be useful when studying other planetary systems.

The study was reported in the Astrophysical Journal.

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