SCUBA image of the dust disk around Fomalhaut. This is a false colour image of the dust emission around Fomalhaut taken with SCUBA at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. The image shows a huge disk-like structure where the brightest emission, and hence the most dust, is represented by the brightest colours (yellow in this case). The disk appears flattened because of the angle from which it is viewed from the Earth. The dust is most likely composed of silicate grains (sand), although we cannot tell that directly from these images. The position of the star is indicated by the "star" symbol. The stretched oval adjacent to the image shows the apparent diameter of our own planetary system if it were located at the distance of Fomalhaut. The Fomalhaut image appears like a `doughnut` with a hole in the centre. It`s possible that this hole has been caused by the accumulation of dust into planets like Earth. The gravitationally perturbed region is the red part to the left of the star.
Artist`s impression of the Fomalhaut planetary system. The star is surrounded by a vast disk of cold dust. The inner planets are sweeping up the dust creating an inner region devoid of material. Collisions between comets continually create more material for the disk. A Saturn-like planet, shown in the foreground, creates a wake through the dust as it orbits the star. This causes the outer disk to appear lumpy and distorted, as shown on the left. Illustration by David Hardy.
An international team of astronomers today report the discovery of a huge distorted disk of cold dust surrounding Fomalhaut - one of the brightest stars in the sky. The most likely cause of the distortion is the gravitational influence of a Saturn-like planet at a large distance from the star tugging on the disk. This provides some of the strongest evidence so far that Solar Systems similar in size, or even bigger than our own, are likely to exist.
One hundred planets are already known to exist outside our Solar System - although none have yet been seen directly by a telescope. These planets have been nicknamed "hot-Jupiters" since they are roughly the size of the planet Jupiter, but have orbits much closer to their star than Jupiter is to our Sun. What is new and exciting about the observation of Fomalhaut is that it probes the space much more distant from the star - in fact, on scales of the orbits of Uranus, Neptune and beyond.
"We were amazed to find that the disk is actually bent about the star", said team leader Dr. Wayne Holland of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) in Edinburgh. "This strongly suggests there is an orbiting giant planet shaping the dust we see".
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