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Disks encircling hypergiant stars may spawn planets in inhospitable environment

RIT astronomer uses NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope to study massive stars

This illustration compares the size of a gargantuan star and its surrounding dusty disk (top) to that of our solar system.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

The discovery of dusty disks--the building blocks of planets--around two of the most massive stars known suggests that planets might form and survive in surprisingly hostile environments.

The discovery was made through NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope observations of two hypergiant stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud--the Milky Way's nearest neighboring galaxy--by a team led by Joel Kastner, a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology's Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science. His team's findings will appear in the Feb. 10 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

So far, searches for planets outside the solar system have been restricted to sun-like stars. All of these stars are older, dimmer and cooler objects than hypergiants, which are extraordinarily large and luminous but shorter-lived by billions of years.

Kastner and his team used infrared spectra obtained by Spitzer to study a population of dying stars. They added a new direction to their project when Spitzer's infrared spectrograph revealed unexpected information. Spitzer's sensitive spectrometer, which breaks down infrared radiation into component wavelengths as a prism splits visible light into a rainbow, indicated that a third of the stars in the population thought to be in decline--including two massive and exceedingly luminous hypergiants--were actually younger stars in varying stages of development.

The curious spectra of these two hypergiants (R126 and R66)--with one star being 70 times bigger than the sun--led Kastner to reexamine the stars' classifications as dying. The shape of the spectra, or the amount of light from different wavelengths, is characteristic of flattened disks of dust orbiting the stars.

The two stars' similar spectra differ in detail, with one encircled by dust in crystalline form, the other by more shapeless, amorphous dust grains. This expands the range of known conditions under which complex dust grains and molecules can form and persist around stars, Kastner says.

Kastner describes the complex mixture of dust detected around the stars as the "tip of the iceberg," probably signaling that the disks of debris surrounding the stars are similar to the solar system's Kuiper Belt, a vast, distant collection of comet- and even Pluto-like objects. "To explain the very strong infrared radiation we detected, the stars we observed would have to host especially large Kuiper belts," he says.

He adds: "If Kuiper belts are the smoking guns of planetary formation around stars, it seems that these stars, as massive as they are, may be forming planets."

Hypergiants are only a few million years old and have a relatively short lifespan as far as stars go, considering the billions of years it will take the sun to expire.

"These planetary systems, if they do form and exist, are short lived because these massive stars explode as supernovae," Kastner says. "So it's amazing that the raw material for planets could be found in such a hostile environment."

Kastner's study highlights only two of more than a dozen or so known examples of very massive stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud that are bright infrared sources. The next phase of the study will use new Spitzer spectra of the additional hypergiant stars to determine how many more are encircled by dusty disks and why only some of these disks contain crystalline dust grains.

"We've discovered a new class of object, and we need to use Spitzer to measure the infrared spectra of a lot more of these objects to learn how unique they really are," Kastner says.

Kastner's team includes Catherine Buchanan from RIT and B. Sargent and W.J. Forrest from the University of Rochester.


For more information, please contact:
Joel Kastner, 585-314-1692,
Susan Gawlowicz, RIT University News Services, 585-475-5061,

Note to editor: Images available at
Caption: Super-sized Disk. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt

This illustration compares the size of a gargantuan star and its surrounding dusty disk (top) to that of our solar system. Monstrous disks like this one were discovered around two "hypergiant" stars by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Astronomers believe these disks might contain the early "seeds" of planets or, possibly, leftover debris from planets that already formed.

The hypergiant stars, called R 66 and R 126, are located about 170,000 light-years away in the Milky Way's nearest neighbor galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. The stars are about 100 times wider than the sun, or big enough to encompass an orbit equivalent to Earth's. The plump stars are heavy, at 30 and 70 times the mass of the sun, respectively. They are the most massive stars known to sport disks.

The disks themselves are also bloated, with masses equal to several Jupiters. The disks begin at a distance approximately 120 times greater than that between Earth and the sun, or 120 astronomical units, and terminate at a distance of about 2,500 astronomical units.

Hypergiant stars are the puffed-up, aging descendants of the most massive class of stars, called "O" stars. The stars are so massive that their cores ultimately collapse under their own weight, triggering incredible explosions called supernovae. If any planets circled near the stars during one of these blasts, they would most likely be destroyed.

The orbital distances in this picture are plotted on a logarithmic scale. This means that a given distance shown here represents proportionally smaller actual distances as you move to the right. The sun and planets in our solar system have been scaled up in size for better viewing.

Information about RIT: Internationally recognized as a leader in computing, engineering, imaging technology, fine and applied arts, and education of the deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology enrolls 15,300 students in more than 340 undergraduate and graduate programs. Its cooperative education program is one of the oldest and largest in the nation.

For the past decade, U.S. News and World Report has ranked RIT as one of the nation's leading comprehensive universities. RIT is also included in The Fiske Guide to Colleges, as well as Barron's Best Buys in Education.

Information about NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech. JPL is a division of Caltech.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
    Published on All rights reserved.



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