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Webb Space Telescope reveals dusty remnants of planet formation unlike anything seen before

These two images are of the dusty debris disk around AU Mic, a red dwarf star 32 light-years away in the southern constellation Microscopium. The team used Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) to study AU Mic. NIRCam’s coronagraph, which blocked the intense light from the central star, allowed the team to study the region very close to the star. The location of the star, which is masked, is marked by a white graphic in the center of each image. The area blocked by the coronagraph is represented by a dotted circle.
Webb provided 3.56 micron (top, blue) and 4.44 micron (bottom, red) images. The team found that the disk was brighter at the shorter or “bluer” wavelength, likely meaning it contains a lot of fine dust that is more efficient at scattering shorter wavelengths of light.
The NIRCam images allowed the researchers to track the disk, which is 60 astronomical units (5.6 billion miles) in diameter, as close to the star as 5 astronomical units (460 million miles) — the equivalent of Jupiter’s orbit. in our solar system. The images were more detailed and brighter than the team expected, and scientists were able to bring the disk closer to the star than expected.
Credits: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Kellen Lawson (NASA-GSFC), Joshua E. Schlieder (NASA-GSFC), Image Processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

The results will help future searches for giant planets in broad orbits

Not very far away in cosmic terms, the dusty remnants of planet formation surround the red dwarf star AU Mic. Caused by collapses of small, solid objects called planetesimals, these remnants encircle the tiny star in a huge debris disk. Now Webb is providing scientists with detailed, never-before-seen images of AU Mic’s dusty disk in infrared light, including the region very close to the star. These images provide clues to the composition of the debris disk and the history of the galaxy.

While imaging the disk is important, the team’s ultimate goal is to search for giant planets in broad orbits, similar to the gas and ice giants of our solar system. By delving into new, uncharted territory in direct imaging around low-mass stars, this work brings them a huge step closer to reaching that goal.

AU Mic Compass (Webb NIRCam)

These coronagraphic images of a disk around the star AU Microscopii, captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), show compass arrows, scale bar, and color key for reference.
The north and east compass arrows indicate the orientation of the image in the sky. Note that the relationship between north and east in the sky (viewed from below) is reversed relative to directional arrows on a map of the ground (viewed from above).
The scale bar is labeled in astronomical units, or AU, which is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun. The field of view shown in this image is about 100 AU wide.
This image shows invisible near-infrared and mid-infrared wavelengths of light translated into colors of visible light. The color key indicates which NIRCam filters were used in capturing the light. The color of each filter name is the visible light color used to represent the infrared light passing through that filter.
Credits: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Kellen Lawson (NASA-GSFC), Joshua E. Schlieder (NASA-GSFC), Image Processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

James Webb Space Telescope has imaged the inner workings of a dusty disk surrounding a nearby red dwarf star. These observations represent the first time the previously known disk has been imaged at these infrared wavelengths of light. They also provide clues to the composition of the disk.

The star system in question, AU Microscopii or AU Mic, is located 32 light-years away in the southern constellation Microscopium. It’s approximately 23 million years old, meaning that planet formation has ended since that process typically takes less than 10 million years. The star has two known planets, discovered by other telescopes. The dusty debris disk that remains is the result of collisions between leftover planetesimals – a more massive equivalent of the dust in our solar system that creates a phenomenon known as zodiacal light.

“A debris disk is continuously replenished by collisions of planetesimals. By studying it, we get a unique window into the recent dynamical history of this system,” said Kellen Lawson of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, lead author on the study and a member of the research team that studied AU Mic.

“This system is one of the very few examples of a young star, with known exoplanets, and a debris disk that is near enough and bright enough to study holistically using Webb’s uniquely powerful instruments,” said Josh Schlieder of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, principal investigator for the observing program and a study co-author.

The team used Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) to study AU Mic. With the help of NIRCam’s coronagraph, which blocks the intense light of the central star, they were able to study the region very close to the star. The NIRCam images allowed the researchers to trace the disk as close to the star as 5 astronomical units (460 million miles) – the equivalent of

The observing program obtained images at wavelengths of 3.56 and 4.44 microns. The team found that the disk was brighter at the shorter wavelength, or “bluer,” likely meaning that it contains a lot of fine dust that is more efficient at scattering shorter wavelengths of light. This finding is consistent with the results of prior studies, which found that the radiation pressure from AU Mic — unlike that of more massive stars — would not be strong enough to eject fine dust from the disk.

While detecting the disk is significant, the team’s ultimate goal is to search for giant planets in wide orbits, similar to Jupiter, transit or radial velocity methods.

“This is the first time that we really have sensitivity to directly observe planets with wide orbits that are significantly lower in mass than Jupiter and Saturn. This really is new, uncharted territory in terms of direct imaging around low-mass stars,” explained Lawson.

These results are being presented today in a press conference at the 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society. The observations were obtained as part of Webb’s Guaranteed Time program 1184.

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