Washington, D.C. Astronomers detected unusually high quantities of carbon, the basis of all terrestrial life, in an infant solar system around nearby star Beta Pictoris, 63 light-years away. "For years we’ve looked to this early forming solar system as one that might be going through the same processes our own solar system did when the rocky planets, including Earth, were forming," commented lead author Aki Roberge,* who began the research while at Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. "But we got a big surprise--there is much more carbon gas than we expected. Something very different is going on." The research, published in the June 8, 2006, Nature, suggests that either carbon-rich asteroids or comets, unlike any in our own solar system, have vaporized, or that bodies outgassing carbon-bearing species such as methane contribute the curious carbon excess.
Dusty, gaseous disks around stars are the birthplaces of planetary systems. Carnegie researcher Alycia Weinberger, co-author of the study, explains: "Since we can’t observe our own solar system as it was 4.5 billion years ago, we look at young stars to learn about the evolution of planet-forming disks. Ultimately, we want to understand the environments and processes around other stars that lead to the rise of life."
The new research was made possible by FUSE--NASA’s Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer--and data from the Hubble Space Telescope’s imaging spectrograph. Beta Pictoris is almost twice the mass of our Sun and between 8 and 20 million years old. Previous studies indicated that the gas around the star had a composition of elements very similar to that in our own solar system. The new measurements mark the "most complete inventory of gas in any debris disk," and may radically change the picture.
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