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Astronomers find oldest known planetary disk

"Without the help of the citizen scientists examining these objects and finding the good ones, we might never have spotted this object," said researcher Marc Kuchner.

By
Brooks Hays
An artistic rendering shows what the oldest planet-forming circumstellar disk might look like. Photo by Jonathan Holden/Disk Detective
An artistic rendering shows what the oldest planet-forming circumstellar disk might look like. Photo by Jonathan Holden/Disk Detective

WASHINGTON, Oct. 21 (UPI) -- At 45 million years old, a newly discovered primordial ring of gas and dust is the oldest known planet-forming disk in the universe. The record-breaking circumstellar disk surrounds a red dwarf in the Carina stellar association.

"Most disks of this kind fade away in less than 30 million years," Steven Silverberg, an astronomer at the University of Oklahoma, said in a news release.

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The red dwarf's planetary disk has lasted an unusually long time. Its discovery was made possible by citizen scientists.

In an effort to locate possible planet-forming regions, NASA has recruited the help of some 30,000 citizen scientists to assist a program called Disk Detective. Participants have viewed and classified some 2 million celestial objects.

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"Without the help of the citizen scientists examining these objects and finding the good ones, we might never have spotted this object," said Marc Kuchner, an astronomer at the Goddard Space Flight Center. "The WISE mission alone found 747 million [warm infrared] objects, of which we expect a few thousand to be circumstellar disks."

Determining the age of a star isn't always easy -- in fact, it's sometimes impossible -- but the cluster of stars found in the Carina association appear to have been born at the same time and from the same source material.

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Still, more research is needed to confirm the disk's age.

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"It is surprising to see a circumstellar disk around a star that may be 45 million years old, because we normally expect these disks to dissipate within a few million years," explained Jonathan Gagné, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science. "More observations will be needed to determine whether the star is really as old as we suspect, and if it turns out to be, it will certainly become a benchmark system to understand the lifetime of disks."

The discovery of the universe's oldest planetary disk was detailed in a new paper, published this week in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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