The things we look for around other stars do not necessarily surprise us. I think most astronomers were thinking we’d find planets around a lot of stars when the Kepler mission began its work. The question was how many — Kepler was to give us a statistical measurement on the planet population within its field of stars, and it succeeded brilliantly. These days it seems clear that we can find planets around most stars, in all kinds of sizes and orbits, as we continue to seek an Earth 2.0..

The continuing news about the star PDS 70, a young T Tauri star about 400 light years away in Centaurus, fits the same mold. Here we’re talking not just about planets but their moons. No exomoons have been confirmed, but there seems no reason to assume we won’t begin to find them — surely the process of forming moons is as universal as that of planet formation. The interest is in the observation, how it is made, and what it implies about our ability to move forward in characterizing planetary systems.

The process takes time, and results can be ambiguous. Back in 2019, PDS 70 was the subject of work performed at Monash University (Australia), led by Valentin Christiaens. The story received an exomoon splash in the press: The researchers believed they were looking at a circumplanetary disk around one of two gas giants forming in this system (see Exoplanet Moons in Formation?).

Everything pointed to a moon-forming disk around one of two young gas giants in the system, though the conclusion could only be considered tentative. I want to mention this because work from the European Southern Observatory that we’ll discuss today also finds a circumplanetary disk at PDS 70, though not around the same still-forming planet examined in the Christiaens et al. study. What an intriguing system this is!

While Christiaens and team looked at PDS 70b, the ESO work examines new high-resolution images of the second gas giant, PDS 70c, using data obtained through the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA). Led by Myriam Benisty (University of Grenoble and University of Chile), the international team now declares the detection of a circumplanetary disk — though not yet a moon — unambiguous. Says Benisty:

“Our work presents a clear detection of a disk in which satellites could be forming. Our ALMA observations were obtained at such exquisite resolution that we could clearly identify that the disk is associated with the planet and we are able to constrain its size for the first time.”

Image: This image shows wide (left) and close-up (right) views of the moon-forming disk surrounding PDS 70c, a young Jupiter-like planet nearly 400 light-years away. The close-up view shows PDS 70c and its circumplanetary disk center-front, with the larger circumstellar ring-like disk taking up most of the right-hand side of the image. The star PDS 70 is at the center of the wide-view image on the left. Two planets have been found in the system, PDS 70c and PDS 70b, the latter not being visible in this image. They have carved a cavity in the circumstellar disk as they gobbled up material from the disk itself, growing in size. In this process, PDS 70c acquired its own circumplanetary disk, which contributes to the growth of the planet and where moons can form. This disk is as large as the Sun-Earth distance and has enough mass to form up to three satellites the size of the Moon. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Benisty et al.

The high-resolution data allow Benisty and team to state that the circumplanetary disk has a diameter of about 1 AU, with enough mass to form up to three moons the size of our own Moon. The planetary system forming around this star is reminiscent of the Jupiter and Saturn configuration in our own Solar System, though notice the size differential. The disk around PDS 70c is 500 times larger than Saturn’s rings. The two planets are also at much larger distances from the host star, and appear to be migrating inward. We are seeing the system in the process of formation, which should offer insights into how not just moons but planets themselves form around infant stars.

Interestingly, the second world here, PDS 70b, does not show evidence of a circumplanetary disk in the ALMA data. One supposition is that it is being starved of dusty material by PDS 70c, although other mechanisms are possible. Here’s a bit more on this from the paper, noting an apparent transport mechanism between disk and forming planet:

These ALMA observations shed new light on the origin of the mm emission close to planet b. The emission is diffuse with a low surface brightness and is suggestive of a streamer of material connecting the planets to the inner disk, providing insights into the transport of material through a cavity generated by two massive planets.

And as to PDS 70b:

The non-detection of a point source around PDS 70 b indicates a smaller and/or less massive CPD [circumplanetary disk] around planet b as compared to planet c, due to the filtering of dust grains by planet c preventing large amount of dust to leak through the cavity, or that the nature of the two CPDs differ. We also detect a faint inner disk emission that could be reproduced with small 1 µm dust grains, and resolve the outer disk into two substructures (a bright ring and an inner shoulder).

The Monash University team in Australia was able to image PDS 70b in the infrared and, like the ESO astronomers, was able to find a spiral arm seeming to feed a circumplanetary disk, while making the case for PDS 70b as the world with the disk. Remember that the two teams were working with different instrumentation and at different wavelengths — the Monash researchers operated at infrared wavelengths to analyze the spectrum of the planet produced by SINFONI (Spectrograph for INtegral Field Observations in the Near Infrared) at the Very Large Telescope in Chile. The ESO team used data from ALMA.

So do we have one or two circumplanetary disks in this system? We’ll see how this is resolved as the investigation of the planets around PDS 70 continues through a variety of instruments. For the importance of the system is clear, as the Benisty paper argues:

Detailed studies of the circumplanetary disks, and of the leakage of material through the cavity, will provide strong constraints on the formation of satellites around gas giants, and on the ability to provide the mass reservoir needed to form terrestrial planets in the inner regions of the disk. Upcoming studies of the gas kinematics and chemistry of PDS 70 will complement the view provided by this work, serving as a benchmark for models of satellite formation, planet-disk interactions and delivery of chemically enriched material to planetary atmospheres.

The paper is Benisty et al., “A Circumplanetary Disk around PDS70c,” Astrophysical Journal Letters Vol. 916, No. 1 (22 July 2021). Abstract.