We’ve seen circumstellar disks around numerous stars, significant because it is from such disks that planets are formed, and we would like to know a good deal more about how this process works. Now we have word of planet-forming disks around several low-mass objects that fit into the brown dwarf range, and one small star about a tenth the mass of the Sun. With the brown dwarfs, we’re working with objects small enough to be at the boundary between planet and star.
The work is led by Anne Boucher (Université de Montréal), whose team drew photometric data from the Two-Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS) and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission, allowing the detection of the objects at infrared wavelengths. Boucher notes the strong attraction such objects hold for astronomers:
“Finding disks in low-mass systems is really interesting to us, because objects that exist at the lower limit of what defines a star and that still have disks that indicate planet formation can tell us a lot about both stellar and planetary evolution.”
Image: An artist’s conception of a planet-forming disk around a brown dwarf. Credit: Robin Dienel.
But let’s pause for a moment on the nature of the disks themselves. Dusty debris disks are considered to be signs of past planet formation, while gas-rich primordial disks mark the presence of active planet formation and accretion into the host star. Because disks can be detected by the presence of excess infrared, beyond what we would expect from the star by itself, we can use infrared observations to measure the differences in thermal emission from one infant system to another, showing us a range of disks at various stages of their evolution.
Thus we get massive primordial disks that are gas-rich and dense around younger systems, while dusty debris disks are colder and more depleted in gas, marking the remnants of planetary system formation even as they are replenished by the collisions of small objects in the system. These can last up to 100 million years; they’re colder and observable in the mid-infrared (primordial disks produce a strong signature in the near-infrared). We also see so-called ‘transition’ disks with an inner region depleted of dust, and an outer region still rich in it.
What Boucher and colleagues have been looking at are three objects ranging from 13 to 19 Jupiter masses, and a fourth of between 101 and 138 Jupiter masses. The paper makes the case that all four disk candidate stars are members of stellar associations — the TW Hydra, Columba, and Tucana-Horologium associations — allowing the researchers to draw conclusions about their age. A stellar association is a large grouping of stars similar in spectral type and origin, grouped more loosely than open or globular-type star clusters. These are young stars that have not had time to move any great distance from their place of formation.
The four disks are all thought to be in the planet-forming phase, none of them having attained the age of a dusty debris disk. Even so, two of these objects appear older — at between 42 and 45 million years — than we would normally associate with an active disk system. From the paper:
Disk temperatures and fractional luminosities were determined from this analysis. Their values indicate that the new disks are likely transitional or primordial. The spectral types of these new disk hosts are late (M4.5 to L0δ), and correspond to low-mass BDs (13 − 19 and 101 − 138MJup) of young ages (∼ 7 − 13 and ∼ 38 − 49Myr). These four systems join a relatively small sample of low-mass objects known to harbor a circumstellar disk. There is still a lot to learn about primordial and (pre-)transitional disks around low-mass stars, and these four new candidates could play an important role to shed light on the formation and evolution processes of stars and planetary systems.
Also in question is the fraction of brown dwarfs that have developed planetary systems. Finding debris disks around young objects like these is one way into the problem, for we can watch the process of planet formation unfold around objects of different ages. Bear in mind as well that their lower luminosity means objects like these could be interesting targets for exoplanet searches using direct imaging methods. All four of the new disk candidates should likewise be prime candidates, the paper suggests, for the Atacama Large Millimeter Array.
The paper is Boucher et al., “BANYAN. VIII. New Low-Mass Stars and Brown Dwarfs with Candidate Circumstellar Disks,” accepted at The Astrophysical Journal (preprint).