Stardust May Not Block Alien Planets Near Sun-like Stars

First Posted: Dec 08, 2014 09:08 AM EST

It turns out that planet hunters may have an easier time of spotting exoplanets than they thought. Scientists have found that, on average, sun-like stars aren't all that dusty. This means that researchers won't have to worry about stardust obscuring the views of the stars' planets.

"Dust is a double-edged sword when it comes to imaging distant planets," said Bertrand Mennesson, lead author of the new study, in a news release. "The presence of dust is a signpost for planets,but too much dust can block our view."

In this latest study, the researchers analyzed mature-sun-like stars with high precision to search for warm, room-temperature dust in their habitable zones. Roughly half of the stars selected for the study had previously shown no signs of cool dust circling in their outer reaches. This outer dust is easier to see than the inner, warm dust due to its greater distance from the host star. In this group of stars, none hosted warm dust, which made them perfect for planet imaging and a good indication that there are other relatively dust-free stars in the universe.

The researchers also examined other stars, which were already known to have significant amounts of distant, cold dust orbiting them. The scientists found that many stars in the group had room-temperature dust. This is the first time a direct link between the cold and warm dust has been established; if a star has a cold belt of dust, then it's likely that its warm, habitable zone is also riddled with dust. This makes the planet a poor target for imaging.

"We want to avoid planets that are buried in dust," said Mennesson. "The dust glows in the infrared and reflects starlight in the visible, both of which can outshine the planet's light."

The findings reveal which exoplanets may be the best targets for making further discoveries. This, in turn, could be a huge boon when it comes to finding Earth-like planets. Not only that, but it shows a bit more about planet formation itself.

The findings are published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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