Science & Technology

A stellar fly-by 3 million-years-ago may help understand the shape of our solar system

This is an artist’s conception of a young planet in a distant orbit around its host star. The star still harbors a debris disk, remnant material from star and planet formation, interior to the planet’s orbit (similar to the HD106906 system). (Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)
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Unusual aspects of our solar-system – including the presence of a possible Planet 9 far from the Sun – may be a result of the close-approach of another star during its infancy.

Other aspect’s of the solar system – such as an enveloping cloud of comets and the strange orbits of dwarf planets – may also be a result of the close interaction throwing things helter-skelter.

The question is; are such stellar fly-bys capable of knocking planets, comets and asteriods askew as well as altering entire planetery systems?

UC Berkeley and Stanford University astronomers think they have found evidence of an answer to this question in a distant binary system which they discuss in a new paper published in The Astronomical Journal.

The HD 106906 binary star hosts a mysterious, asymmetric disk of cometary dust and a giant exoplanet HD 106906 b that is located very far from both the binary and the disk. Close flybys by other stars could have gravitationally perturbed the planet and researchers discovered that the two bright stars to the upper right passed near HD 106906 roughly 3 Myr years ago. (Paul Kalas, UC Berkeley)

In the system in question – HD 106906 located about 300 light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Crux – a planet orbiting a young binary star may have been perturbed by another pair of stars that skated too close to the system between 2 and 3 million years ago, soon after the planet formed from a swirling disk of dust and gas.

If confirmed, this bolsters arguments that close stellar misses help sculpt planetary systems and may determine whether or not they harbour planets with stable orbits.

Paul Kalas, a UC Berkeley adjunct professor of astronomy, says: “One of the mysteries arising from the study of exoplanets is that we see systems where the planets are misaligned, even though they are born in a flat, circular disk.

“Maybe a cosmic tsunami hit these systems and rearranged everything about them, but we haven’t had proof. Our paper gives rare observational evidence for one of these flybys gently influencing one of the planetary systems in the galaxy.”

Astronomers are already searching for a stellar flyby in our solar system’s past, but since that likely happened 4.6 billion years ago, most of the evidence has gone cold. The star system that the astronomers studied, identified only by the number HD 106906 and located about 300 light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Crux, is very young, only about 15 million years old.

Passing stars may have influenced our young solar system, accounting for the distant orbits of comets in the Oort cloud, Kuiper Belt objects such as Sedna, and the hypothetical Planet Nine. A new study published by astronomers Robert De Rosa and Paul Kalas presents the discovery of two stars that flew by the binary star HD 106906, possibly explaining why its distant gas giant planet HD 106906 b remains in a stable orbit instead of becoming an interstellar object such as ‘Oumuamua (Paul Kalas, UC Berkeley )

Stellar fly-by, rogue stars and nomad planets

Kalas – who studies young, newly formed planetary systems to try to understand what happened in the early years of our own solar system – first focused on HD 106906 in 2015 after it was found to have a massive planet in a highly unusual orbit.

The planet, dubbed HD 106906 b, has a mass approximately 11 times that of Jupiter, and it orbits HD 106906 – recently revealed to be a binary star – in an orbit 738 times wider than Earth’s and tipped about 21 degrees from the plane of the disk that contains all the other material around the star.

Kalas used both the Gemini Planet Imager on the Gemini Telescope in the Chilean Andes and the Hubble Space Telescope to look more closely at HD 106906 and discovered that the star has a lopsided comet belt, as well. The planet’s strange orbit and the fact that the dust disk itself is asymmetrical indicated that something had disrupted the young system.

The Gemini Planet Imager on the Gemini South telescope. In the photo, GPI comprises the three box-like components attached to the telescope and hanging closest to the observatory floor. Other box-like components on the telescope are other instruments. (Manuel Paredes/Gemini Observatory/AURA)

Kalas and his colleagues – including Robert De Rosa, a former UC Berkeley postdoc who is now a research scientist at Stanford’s Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology – proposed that the planet had been kicked out of its solar system by interactions with another as-yet-unseen planet in the system or by a passing star.

Kalas and De Rosa now believe that both happened: The planet was kicked into an eccentric orbit when it came dangerously close to the central binary star, a scenario proposed in 2017 by theorist Laetitia Rodet and her collaborators from the Grenoble Observatory in France.

Repeated gravitational kicks from the binary would have quickly ejected the planet into interstellar space, but the passing stars rescued the planet by nudging its orbit to a safer distance from the binary.

The Gaia space observatory gave them the data they needed to test their hypothesis. Gaia, launched in 2012 by the European Space Agency, collects precise measurements of distance, position and motion for 1.3 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, a catalog 10,000 times larger than Gaia’s predecessor, Hipparcos.

An artist’s rendition of the Gaia space telescope (ESA)

Kalas and De Rosa gathered Gaia information on 461 stars in the same cluster as HD 106906 and calculated their positions backward in time–reversed the cosmic clock, so to speak–and discovered that another binary star system may have approached close enough 3 million years ago to alter the planetary system.

Kalas says: “What we have done here is actually find the stars that could have given HD 106906 b the extra gravitational kick, a second kick so that it became long-lived, just like a hypothetical Planet Nine would be in our solar system.”

They also found also that the binary star came in on a trajectory that was within about 5 degrees of the system’s disk, making it even more likely that the encounter had a strong and lasting impact on HD 106906.

Such double kicks may be important to stabilizing planets, asteroids and comets around stars. As Kalas explains: “Studying the HD 106906 planetary system is like going back in time to watch the Oort cloud of comets forming around our young star.

“Our own giant planets gravitationally kicked countless comets outward to large distances. Many were ejected completely, becoming interstellar objects like Oumuamua, but others were influenced by passing stars. That second kick by a stellar flyby can detach a comet’s orbit from any further encounters with the planets, saving it from the prospect of ejection. This chain of events preserved the most primitive solar system material in a deep freeze far from the sun for billions of years.”

Kalas – who hopes that future observations, such as an updated catalog of Gaia measurements, will clarify the significance of the flyby on HD 106906 – says: “We started with 461 suspects and discovered two that were at the scene of the crime.

“Their exact role will be revealed as we gather more evidence.”

Original research:


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