Image: An expanded diagram of the debris disc and planets around the star known as Gliese 581, superimposed on a composite Herschel image assembled from separate observations made with its PhotoArray Camera and Spectrometer (PACS) at 70, 100 and 160 micrometre wavelengths. The white region in the lower centre of the image is the emission that originates almost entirely from the disc, with only a small contribution from the unseen Gliese 581. The line drawing superimposed on the Herschel image gives a schematic representation of the location and orientation of the star, planets and disc, albeit not to scale. The black oval outline sketched onto the Herschel data represents the innermost boundary of the debris disc; the approximate location of the outermost boundary is represented by the outer set of dashed lines. Credit: ESA/AOES.

On Debris Disks and Super-Earths


The red dwarf Gliese 581 continues to draw the eye, whether or not the putative world Gl 581 g is there or not. The latter, whose existence has been the subject of controversy, would occupy a tantalizing place in its star’s habitable zone, though in some models the planet Gl 581 d might also skirt the outer edge of the HZ. Now we have interesting new work from the European Space Agency’s Herschel space observatory announcing that Gl 581, along with the G-class star 61 Vir, another nearby planetary system, shows the the signature of cold dust at -200 degrees Celsius.

It’s an abundant signature, too, meaning that both these systems must have ten times the number of comets found in our own Solar System’s Kuiper Belt. The two papers on this work grow out of a program called, fittingly, DEBRIS (Disc Emission via a Bias-free Reconnaissance in the Infrared/Sub-mm). What the researchers working these data are suggesting is that the lack of a large gas giant in the two systems may relate to the dense debris cloud. Instead of an era of heavy bombardment triggered by gas giants disrupting the Kuiper Belt, as occurred in our system, these stars may have experienced a much gentler inflow of volatiles. Thus Mark Wyatt (University of Cambridge), lead author of the paper on 61 Vir:

“The new observations are giving us a clue: they’re saying that in the Solar System we have giant planets and a relatively sparse Kuiper Belt, but systems with only low-mass planets often have much denser Kuiper belts… We think that may be because the absence of a Jupiter in the low-mass planet systems allows them to avoid a dramatic heavy bombardment event, and instead experience a gradual rain of comets over billions of years.”

Read more: On Debris Disks and Super-Earths — Centauri Dreams.

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