Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Rosette Nebula

In a new study from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, scientists report the first maps of so-called planetary "danger zones." These are areas where winds and radiation from super hot stars can strip other young, cooler stars like our sun of their planet-forming materials. The results show that cooler stars are safe as long as they lie beyond about 1.6 light-years, or nearly 10 trillion miles, of any hot stars. But cooler stars inside the zone are likely to see their potential planets boiled off into space.

Planets are born out of a flat disk of gas and dust, called a protoplanetary disk, that swirls around a young star. They are believed to clump together out of the disk over millions of years, growing in size like dust bunnies as they sweep through the dust.
Previous studies revealed that these protoplanetary disks can be destroyed by the most massive, hottest type of star in the universe, called an O-star, over a period of about a million years. Ultraviolet radiation from an O-star heats and evaporates the dust and gas in the disk, then winds from the star blow the material away.

Last year, Balog and his team used Spitzer to capture a stunning picture of this "photoevaporation" process at work.

The team's new study is the first systematic survey for disks in and around the danger zone, or "blast radius" of an O-star. They used Spitzer's heat-seeking infrared eyes to look for disks around 1,000 stars in the Rosette Nebula, a turbulent star-forming region 5,200 light-years away in the constellation Monoceros. The stars range between one-tenth and five times the mass of the sun and are between 2 and 3 million years old. They are all near at least one of the region's massive O-stars.

The observations revealed that, beyond 10 trillion miles of an O-star, about 45 percent of the stars had disks -- about the same amount as there were in safer neighborhoods free of O-stars. Within this distance, only 27 percent of the stars had disks, with fewer and fewer disks spotted around stars closest to the O-star. In other words, an O-star's danger zone is a sphere whose damaging effects are worst at the core. For reference, our sun's closest star, a small star called Proxima Centauri, is nearly 30 trillion miles away.

"Stars move around all the time, so if one wanders into the danger zone and stays for too long, it will probably never be able to form planets," said Zoltan Balog of the University of Arizona, Tucson, lead author of the new report, appearing May 20 in the Astrophysical Journal.

Astronomers Map Out Planetary Danger Zone
Spitzer/Caltech press release 18.04.07
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