Even small stars can sap the planet-forming potential of their neighbors

"This phenomenon could significantly affect the planets that can form around different stars," said researcher Thomas Haworth.
By Brooks Hays  |  March 22, 2017 at 3:00 PM
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March 22 (UPI) -- New research shows small, fledgling stars can thwart nearby planet formation, too.

Scientists knew the emissions of large stars can burn-off and evaporate the protoplanetary disk of stellar neighbors. But astronomers assumed the phenomenon was only powered by stars of considerable size.

However, astronomers at Imperial College London have discovered a protoplanetary disk being burned away by the radiation of a low mass star -- a first.

The protoplanetary disk, named IM Lup, surrounds a star similar in size and strength to our sun. Observations show it's being evaporated by the energy of a star 10,000 times weaker than the average disk-eating behemoth.

Astronomers estimate the disk will be robbed of 3,300 Earth's worth of material during its 10-million-year lifetime.

"Because the light shining on this disc is so much weaker than that shining on known evaporating discs, it was expected that there would be no evaporation," lead researcher Thomas Haworth, an astrophysicist at ICL, said in a news release. "We have shown that actually these stars can evaporate a significant amount of material."

The findings -- published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters -- present a new lens through which to analyze the planetary potential of star-forming regions.

"This result has consequences if we want to understand the diversity of exoplanet systems that are being discovered," Haworth said. "This phenomenon could significantly affect the planets that can form around different stars. For example, light from nearby stars could limit the maximum size a solar system can be."

Haworth and his colleagues believe IM Lup is impacted by relatively weak emissions because it is exceptionally wide. The outer rings of the disk are far from their host star, where gravity is weak and mass is more easily ripped away.

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