Molecular Gas Clumps from the Destruction of Icy Bodies in the β Pictoris Debris Disk

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Science  28 Mar 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6178, pp. 1490-1492
DOI: 10.1126/science.1248726

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One-Sided Story from Disk

In young analogs of the solar system, the ongoing erosion of comets and nascent planets produces dusty debris that is eventually expelled by the host star. Gas should also be released in this process when volatile ices sublimate, but it is detected less often. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array, Dent et al. (p. 1490, published online 6 March; see the Perspective by Brandeker) mapped a highly asymmetric disk of dust and carbon monoxide orbiting the planet-hosting star, β Pictoris. The distribution of gas and dust is consistent with two proposed scenarios: In one, an outward-migrating planet has resonantly trapped dust-yielding bodies in two clumps opposite the star. In another, the entire debris mass is the result of a single recent collision of Mars-sized bodies.


Many stars are surrounded by disks of dusty debris formed in the collisions of asteroids, comets, and dwarf planets, but is gas also released in such events? Observations at submillimeter wavelengths of the archetypal debris disk around β Pictoris show that 0.3% of a Moon mass of carbon monoxide orbits in its debris belt. The gas distribution is highly asymmetric, with 30% found in a single clump 85 astronomical units from the star, in a plane closely aligned with the orbit of the inner planet, β Pictoris b. This gas clump delineates a region of enhanced collisions, either from a mean motion resonance with an unseen giant planet or from the remnants of a collision of Mars-mass planets.

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