Hubble Space Telescope Reveals Gap In Beta Pictoris Dust Disk

Astronomers have long known that the star Beta Pictoris has a dust disk. This disk was discovered by the IRAS satellite back in the mid 1980's. Astronomers at the time had determined that this disk was either leftover from planetary formation around Beta Pictoris or that planets were in the process of forming inside the disk. Further observations revealed a gap in the disk of a distance of 5 billion miles, which is roughly similar in size to the area in which the planets of our own solar system orbit. Sc ientists theorize that this region was cleared away yet unseen orbiting planets. The debate over whether or not Beta Pictoris has planets is muted by new information.

Recent images from the Hubble Space Telescope have provided strong evidence that a planet roughly the size of Jupiter circles Beta Pictoris. Detailed images of the inner regions of the 200 billion mile diameter dust disk have revealed an unexpected warp.

"We were surprised to find that the innermost region of the disk is orbiting in a different plane than the rest of the disk." says Chris Burrows of the Hubble Space Telescope Institute. "Such a warp cannot last for very long. "

Burrows surmises that something has to continue to twist the disk and bend it out of shape. He estimates that the planet's mass could be anywhere from 1/20th the mass of Jupiter to 20 times the mass of Jupiter. Other planets smaller than this could exist as well. However, they would be invisible to the Hubble cameras.

This discovery comes on the heels of a virtual wave of extra-solar planet discoveries. First 3 to 4 planets were discovered orbiting a Virgo Pulsar. At least one planet each has been found around Ursa Majoris, 51 Pegasi, and 70 Virginis. The 70 Viriginis discovery is unique in that the position of this planet is conducive to the presence of liquid water.

- By Michael Koller