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A Thoroughly Disrupted Solar System

A quick follow-up on our most recent discussion of KIC 8462852 (and thanks to all for the continuing high level of discussion in the comments) because today’s topic touches on a bit of the same ground. Centauri Dreams regular Harry Ray was first to notice a paper from Eva Bodman and Alice Quillen (University of Rochester) titled “KIC 8462852: Transit of a Large Comet Family.” From the paper:

…if the comet family model is correct, there is likely a planetary companion forming sungrazers. Since the comets are still tightly clustered within each dip, a disruption event likely occurred recently within orbit, like tidal disruption by the star. This comet family model does not explain the large dip observed around day 800 and treats it as unrelated to the ones starting at day 1500. The flux changes too smoothly and too slowly to be easily explained with a simple comet family model.

I’ve only had the chance to glance at this work so far, but it’s heartening to see another paper analyzing the KIC 8462852 light curves. Massimo Marengo (Iowa State), whose own paper we just looked at, notes in the comments to that article that star-grazing comets regularly fragment, and to produce a ‘family of comets’ at KIC 8462852 simply requires a large, icy body (think, for example, of a Kuiper Belt object) breaking up after a close pass by the star. The follow-up work that Marengo, Hulsebus and Willis recommend in their paper give us a useful way to proceed.

Addendum: Dr. Marengo just alerted me to another new paper, one in which he had a hand. It’s Lisse et al., “IRTF/SPEX Observations of the Unusual Kepler Lightcurve System KIC8462852,” now available here on the arXiv site. From the abstract, this interesting bit:

Our results are inconsistent with large amounts of static close-in obscuring material or the unusual behavior of a YSO system, but are consistent with the favored episodic models of a Gyr old stellar system favored by Boyajian et al. (2015). We speculate that KIC8462852, like the ~1.4 Gyr old F2V system η Corvi (Wyatt et al. 2005, Chen et al. 2006, Lisse et al. 2012), is undergoing a Late Heavy Bombardment, but is only in its very early stages.

Exoplanets at System’s Edge


The thought of comets on interesting courses provides a helpful segue into today’s topic, a study by Paul Kalas (UC-Berkeley) and colleagues that looks at the star HD 106906, where images from the Gemini Planet Imager and new analysis of data from the Hubble instrument show us a cometary belt that is lopsided. The disturbed nature of this solar system is obvious, telling us of likely planetary interactions that caused the comet disruptions and may well have caused an exoplanet seen in the GPI image to be driven to the remote outskirts of its system.

Image: Astrophysicist Paul Kalas. Credit: UC Berkeley.

We may be looking at disruptions caused by a passing star, although the researchers do not rule out a second massive planet as the culprit in the HD 106906 system. The planet HD 106906 b was discovered by Vanessa Bailey (University of Arizona) in 2014, a gas giant of approximately eleven times Jupiter’s mass. 300 light years from us in the constellation Crux, the young star (about 13 million years old) is separated from its companion by an eyebrow-raising 650 AU. This is sixteen times farther than Pluto is from the Sun, a region far beyond where planets are normally thought to form.


Image (click to enlarge): Two direct images of the cometary dust and exoplanet surrounding the young star HD 106906. The wider field in blue shows Hubble Space Telescope data where the star’s blinding light is artificially eclipsed (gray circular mask). The point to the upper right is an 11 Jupiter mass planet located over 650 times the Earth-Sun distance. A new discovery in these Hubble observations is an extremely asymmetric nebulosity indicating a dynamically disturbed system of comets. Surprisingly, the planet is located 21 degrees above the plane of the nebulosity. The circular orange inset shows a region much closer to the star that can only be detected using advanced adaptive optics from the ground-based Gemini Observatory. Using the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), researchers found a narrow loop of nebulosity suggesting that a planetary system formed close to the star, but somehow the architecture of the outer regions is severely disrupted. Credit: Paul Kalas / UC Berkeley.

Several explanations for the location of this planet can be advanced, one of them being that the planet formed where it is today from its own cloud of gas and dust, but the Kalas paper looks at the options involving system disruption. For archival images from Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys show us that HD 106906 is surrounded by a ring of material reminiscent of our own Kuiper Belt, with a largely empty central region, about 50 AU in radius, that implies a planetary system has formed there.

The outer ring, however, extends further than expected and is lopsided, reaching almost out to the known planet on one side, while being thick and truncated on the side opposite the planet. Moreover, the planet’s orbit appears to be tilted 21 degrees away from the plane of the inner system. “These discoveries,” said Kalas, “suggest that the entire planetary system has been recently jostled by an unknown perturbation to its current asymmetric state.”

In a UC Berkeley news release, Kalas adds this:

“We think that the planet itself could have captured material from the comet belt, and that the planet is surrounded by a large dust ring or dust shroud. We conducted three tests and found tentative evidence for a dust cloud, but the jury is still out.”

The paper analyzes three dynamical scenarios, two of which link the planet with the large-scale disk asymmetry, while the third assumes a stellar flyby that perturbed the disk, causing the asymmetry but not implicating the planet in its formation. If the planet is surrounded by a dust shroud or ring, this along with the misshapen debris belt would point to a planet that formed in the inner system and experienced gravitational interactions that forced it into the present outer orbit, as opposed to a planet that formed in that remote region in the first place.

Focusing in on dust near the planet, Kalas and colleagues conducted several experiments in their search for evidence of a circumplanetary disk. From the paper:

Based on the combination of evidence from the IR color, HST optical radial profile, and the optical flux level, we conclude that there may be a disk of material that was either captured in an encounter with the primary star’s disk, or retained from the time of formation of the planetary mass companion. Additional observations are required to clarify these tentative conclusions about the environment surrounding HD 106906b.

So we have only tentative evidence for a dust cloud of captured material surrounding the planet, perhaps as a large dust ring, but the paper outlines follow-up observations that can clarify the situation. In any case, we are learning how violent a place a young solar system can be, with gravitational disturbances that can profoundly affect dust and debris disks and potentially eject entire planets from the inner system. A passing star could explain the initial disruption here. We now wait to learn how a possibly ejected planet further affects the system’s configuration.

The paper is Kalas et al., “Direct imaging of an asymmetric debris disk in the HD 106906 planetary system,” The Astrophysical Journal Vol. 814, No. 1 (2015). Abstract / preprint.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • andy December 2, 2015, 14:32

    HD 106906 is in fact a close binary: this is noted in a paper (Lagrange et al. 2015) whose authors independently resolved the HD 106906 debris disc. Apparently there is a forthcoming paper about the properties of the binary system.

  • Andrei December 2, 2015, 22:12

    Oh so then a late Heavy Bombardment still might be one explanation for what was detected at KIC 8462852 then. Thought it had been ruled out when some felt the need to look after more …exotic explanations.
    Interesting. I came up with the idea that on object similar to Chiron in our own solar system would have approached the star KIC8 and fallen to pieces.
    Chiron will not remain forever in the current orbit, one day the orbit might be disturbed and it could slingshot around Saturn toward the inner solar system.
    That would turn Chiron into a super comet, and any aliens watching Sol might write papers on the crazy Earthlings that blown up a KBO – though it would be a completely natural event. ;)

  • Carey Lisse December 2, 2015, 23:04

    Dear Paul,

    Thank you for finding and mentioning our new paper on the near-infrared spectrum of KIC 8462852. Since the spectrum looks so normal for an F2V-
    F3V star, we can rule out any extreme models for its structure and behavior like youthful blobs of circumstellar dust or giant evaporating rocky planets or large static light absorbing structures close in. The periodic eccentric breaking up KBO hypothesis of Boyajian et al (2015), which mirrors the one we put forward in 2012 to explain the debris disk around Eta Corvi, looks like a good explanation though.

    Tabby wrote me today to remind me we had first met at Yale 2 years ago when I lectured on the close inner passage (and demise and aftermath) of comet ISON at Yale. Which prompted me, because of comet ison’s claims to fame, to summarize the current state of understanding of KIC 8462852 as:

    “We’ve gone from describing KIC 8462852 as possibly having circumstellar Alien Architectures to circumstellar Alien Zombie Comets.”


    – Carey Lisse

  • Paul Gilster December 3, 2015, 8:54

    “Alien Zombie Comets”! I love it. With a title like that, can a TV mini-series be far behind? Thanks so much for the note as well as the Eta Corvi reference, Carey.

  • Hop David December 3, 2015, 10:37

    (Googling Chiron…) Wow. The big Centaurs are scarey objects.

  • Harry R Ray December 3, 2015, 10:40

    Thanks, Paul. I encourage other readers to scan the exoplanet.eu and arxiv websites BEFORE they pull up this one(as I do) and comment IMMEDIATELY when they are topic-related to the most recent posting. I am baffled by Bodman and Quillan to model a fragmented comet scenario to the day750 event, but; mentioning Paul Kalas IMMEDIATELY jogged my memory regarding his “infamous” Fomalhaut B! If a planet can posess a spherical shell of icy debris for a long period of time, maybe this is what we are seeing at day750! A 3 day transit means that the planet would have an orbital period LONGER than the duration of the Kepler main mission, thus only one transit would have been detected. This could ALSO be the stargrazer causer mentioned by Bodman and Quillan in their paper. HOWEVER, the jury is still out on this until we here from Jason Wright. Until then, two things need to be done immediately. ONE: Determine the AGE of the M2 companion, and; TWO(as I mentioned in an erlier comment on this post): Check to see whether KIC8462852’s spectral signature indicates a continuous stream of comets crashing into the star.

  • neutrino78x December 3, 2015, 12:16

    Whatever happened with the spectrographic analysis of the kic 846 star? They had said that it would rule out the alien artifact hypothesis. Was that done yet? :)

  • Harry R Ray December 4, 2015, 10:39

    neutrino78x: That analysis would have to occur ONLY when a MAJOR TRANSIT(i.e., like the 800 and 1,500 day events) was IN PROGRESS! This star is now being monitered by ameteur astronomers 24/7 for any such big dips in the light curve. It may be quite a while BEFORE this happens again. Until then, a better plan would be to take continuous spectra of the star to see if comets are COLLIDING with KIC8462852, as they are with Beta Pictoris.

  • Harry R Ray December 7, 2015, 14:50

    I FINALLY got around to reading the Lisse, Sitko, Marengo “IRTF 3m SpeX”
    PDF, and this REALLY popped out at me: (our observations cannot, however, rule out any artificial structure with an abnormally low /<1%/ emmisivity pointed in our direction)". This appears to rule out any kind of Dyson swarm that we can conceive of, whose emmisivity would not be that low. It appears to me that the last remaining hope of an artificial structure we can conceive of(i.e. NOT "black monoliths", which I have mentioned in previous coments) would be mirrors pointed directly at the star, and thus receiving very little heat to re-emit! If this is the case, AND, if it repeats every 750 days, would Kepler have been able to detect a slight INCREASE in light emmission just before and just after SECONDARY ECLIPSE, along with a bell curve shaped dip DURING secondary eclipse? I cannot see any. ALSO: the one remaining mystery light curve: The "Q8" 15% dip, appears to have an ingress that is much longer than the egress. My own estimate is that it is a ratio of a little greater than 3 to one(more on this later)! Since the EXPERT light curve analysts(Bodman and Quillan) couldn't make a final call(although all indications lead to a slightly less disturbed comet family solution, or the one I proposed in a previous coment about a possible shell of icy /NOT dusty/ debris around a planet a la Fomalhaut b) somebody ought to cozy up to a supercomputer to resolve this. AND WHILE THEY ARE AT IT, use a microscope to determine the PRECICE ingress-egress ratio of "Q8" just to make sure that PI is NOT in the error box!