Asteroid Belt Found Around Vega
This artist's concept illustrates an asteroid belt around the bright star Vega. Evidence for this warm ring of debris was
found using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, and the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory, in which NASA plays
an important role. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
January 8, 2013
By Daniel Stolte/UANews and Adam Hadhazy/JPL
A UA-led team of astronomers has discovered inner asteroid belts and outer comet-filled belts similar
to the arrangement found in our solar system around nearby stars Vega and Fomalhaut. A wide gap between the
inner and outer belts strongly hints at the existence of yet undiscovered planets circling the bright stars.
Vega, the second brightest star in northern night skies, has an asteroid belt much like our sun, discovered by a University of
Arizona-lead team of astronomers. A wide gap between the dust belts in nearby bright stars is a strong hint of yet-undiscovered
planets orbiting the stars.
The findings from the Infrared Space Telescopes are the first to show an asteroid-like belt ringing Vega.
The discovery of an asteroid belt around Vega makes it more similar to its twin, a star called Fomalhaut, than previously known.
Both stars now are known to have inner, warm asteroid belts and outer, comet-filled belts, similar in architecture to the asteroid
and Kuiper belts in our own solar system.
“Finding an asteroid belt similar to the one in our solar system and other nearby bright stars is exciting,” said
an astronomer with
at the UA. Su is the lead author of a paper on the findings accepted for
in the Astrophysical Journal. The discovery was presented at the
American Astronomical Society meeting
in Long Beach, Calif.
The Spitzer and Herschel telescopes detected infrared light emitted by warm and cold dust in discrete regions around Vega and
Fomalhaut, revealing the existence of the debris disks. Both belts in our solar system contain "planetesimals" – leftover “crumbs”
that didn’t make it into planets.
“The wide gap between the two debris belts strongly suggests that multiple planets orbit these stars even though
we can’t see them,” Su explained. “We know this because in systems without planets, the debris material is evenly distributed.”
Su explained planets create gaps in debris disks by a process called “sculpting.”
“Planets scatter the objects under their gravitational influence. Over time, you won’t see any dust or planetesimals
in the region where they reside.”
In this diagram, the Vega system, which was already known to have a cooler outer belt of comets (orange), is compared to our
solar system with its asteroid and Kuiper belts. The relative size of our solar system compared to Vega is illustrated by the
small drawing in the middle. On the right, our solar system is scaled up four times. The comparison illustrates that both
systems have inner and outer belts with similar proportions. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The structure of the debris around Vega and Fomalhaut is divided into an inner "warm" belt and an outer "cold" belt with a large
gap separating them. The temperature of the “warm” belt was measured to be minus 190 degrees Fahrenheit, while the outer belt is
minus 370 degrees, far colder than any place on Earth.
In our solar system, the inner asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is maintained by the gravity of the terrestrial planets and
the giant planets. The giant planets exclusively sculpt the outer Kuiper belt. Unlike Kuiper belt objects, which resemble
“dirty snowballs” because they contain large amounts of water ice, objects in the asteroid belt don’t stay cold enough to retain
much ice, which sublimates into space, leaving behind rocky bodies. Comets, on the other hand, originate from the Kuiper belt and
the outer part of the solar system.
“We can’t see the asteroids, but the product of their collisions with each other,” Su said. "Vega and Fomalhaut really live up to
their nicknames as 'debris disk twins' because both have warm, asteroid-like and cold, Kuiper belt-like disks of material.”
Comets and the collisions of rocky planetesimal chunks replenish the dust in these bands. The asteroid belts in these systems
cannot be seen in visible light because they are too close to their host stars and are outshined by the glare of their stars.
Vega and Fomalhaut are like twins in other ways. Both possess about twice the mass of our sun and burn a hotter, bluer color in
visible light. Both stars are relatively nearby at about 25 light-years away and are similar in age, about a half-billion years.
Our sun is 4.5 billion years old.
Fomalhaut has a single known candidate planet orbiting it, Fomalhaut b, which stands as one of the dozen or so exoplanets that
have been directly imaged by ground- or space-based instruments. No planets have been detected around Vega, but the new
observations strongly suggest their presence.
Both the inner and outer belts contain far more material than our own asteroid and Kuiper belts. The reason is twofold:
The star systems are far younger than our own, which has had hundreds of millions of more years to clean house, so to speak,
and the systems formed from an initially more massive cloud of gas and dust than our solar system.
Schematic cross section of the Fomalhaut system: The inner asteroid belt is close to the star,
separated by a gap likely inhabited by yet unseen planets from the outer belt of Kuiper-belt-like objects ("KBO Zone").
1 AU (Astronomical Unit) equals the average distance between the Earth and the sun. (Illustration: Kate Su)
The gap between the inner and outer debris belts for Vega and Fomalhaut also proportionally corresponds to the distance between
our sun's asteroid and Kuiper belts. This distance works out to a ratio of about 1:10, with the outer belt 10 times farther away
from its host star than the inner belt. In our solar system, the asteroid belt lies roughly two to three times farther from the sun
than the Earth, and the Kuiper belt starts at around 30 times the sun-Earth distance. Vega's and Fomalhaut's asteroid belts begin
about four times more distant than our own asteroid belt, again in proportion to their system's higher mass and luminosity.
The researchers found essentially the same constellation around Vega, another nearby star. (Illustration: Kate Su)
As for the large gap between the two belts, a single, supersized planet dozens of times the mass of Jupiter could gravitationally
carve out such an area by clearing and accreting stray dust. But previous planet-hunting surveys would have spotted any object of
that magnitude. Instead, several Jupiter-sized or smaller planets that have not been detected yet better fit the bill for creating
a dust-free zone between the debris disks. A good comparison star system is HR 8799, which has four known planets that sweep up the
space between two similar disks of debris.
"Overall, the large gap between the warm and the cold belts is a signpost that points to multiple planets likely orbiting around
Vega and Fomalhaut," said Su. "Our finding echoes other recent research which indicates low-mass planets are more numerous than
massive ones and that multiple exoplanet systems are also rather common."
If unseen planets do in fact orbit Vega and Fomalhaut, these bodies will not likely stay hidden for long. "Upcoming new facilities
should be able to find the planets," said paper co-author Karl Stapelfeldt, chief of the Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics
Laboratory at Goddard Space Flight Center.
Herschel is a European Space Agency cornerstone mission, with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes
and with important participation by NASA. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory contributed mission-enabling technology for two of
Herschel's three science instruments. JPL also manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate,
Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech, also in Pasadena.
Caltech manages JPL for NASA.