NASA's Hubble Space Telescope revealed two dust disks circling the nearby star Beta Pictoris. The images confirm a decade of scientific speculation that a warp in the young star's dust disk may actually be a second inclined disk, which is evidence for the possibility of a planet that is at least as big as Neptune. Credit: NASA
Puffy debris disks around three nearby stars could harbour Pluto-sized planets-to-be, a new computer model suggests.
The "planet embryos" are predicted to orbit three young, nearby stars, located within about 60 light years or less of our solar system. Beta Pictoris & AU Microscopii are both about 12 million years old, while a third star, Fomalhaut, is aged at 200 million years old.
If confirmed, the objects would represent the first evidence of a never-before-observed stage of early planet formation. Another team recently spotted "space lint" around a nearby star that pointed to an even earlier phase of planet building, when baseball-sized clumps of interstellar dust grains are colliding together.
The thickness of a dust ring or debris disk depends on the size of objects orbiting inside it. The ring of dust thins as the star system ages, but if enough dust has clumped together to form an embryonic planet, it knocks the other dust grains into eccentric orbits. Over time, this can puff up what was a razor-thin disk.
The new finding will be detailed in an upcoming issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
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