TUCSON, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- The massive disk of gas and dust that surrounds the the 20 million-year-old star Beta Pictoris has been photographed in greater detail that ever before, thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope and a team of scientists at the University of Arizona.
The diameter of the cosmic disk -- composed of the types of gas, dust and cosmic materials that may coalesce into planets -- is roughly 20 times wider that the planetary orbits or our home solar system. But while researcher have previously noted the impressive size of the Beta Pictoris system, the innards of this cosmological swirl had not been well documented.
The new research, enabled by Hubble's infrared imaging instruments, reveals the insides of the stellar disk in never-before-seen detail. The new images reveal the unique inner structures of the dense inner disk and confirms the presence of a massive planet within the spiral of debris.
"Some computer simulations predicted a complicated structure for the inner disk due to the gravitational pull by the short-period giant planet," astronomer Daniel Apai, who along with Glenn Schneider lead the Beta Pictoris research, explained in a recent press release.
"The new images reveal the inner disk and confirm the predicted structures," added Apai, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. "This finding validates models, which will help us to deduce the presence of other exoplanets in other disks."
The new imagery -- the first of its kind -- shows how the concentrations of gas and dust are manipulated by a gas giant orbiting about Beta Pictoris. The study also reveals where collisions between planetary-size and asteroid-size objects are likely responsible for extra dense blobs of debris.
While the massive amounts of dust make Beta Pictoris and its circumstellar disk one of the brightest and most visible of nearby systems, it also makes it somewhat unique.
"The Beta Pictoris disk is the prototype for circumstellar debris systems, but it may not be a good archetype," explained co-author Schneider.
The new study was published this week in the Astrophysical Journal.