The remains of the formation of a planetary system discovered around the nearest star

Researchers from the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC) have discovered a dust belt around Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun, with the ALMA interferometer. Similar to the Kuiper Belt of our Solar System, it represents the finding of remnant material from the formation of the planetary system closest to our own

Investigadores del Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA-CSIC) han descubierto un cinturón de polvo alrededor de Proxima Centauri, la estrella más cercana al Sol,

Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Sun. It is a faint red dwarf lying just four light-years away in the southern constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur). It is orbited by the Earth-sized temperate world Proxima b, discovered in 2016 and the closest planet to the Solar System. But there is more to this system than just a single planet. The new ALMA observations reveal emission from clouds of cold cosmic dust surrounding the star.

The lead author of the new study, Guillem Anglada, from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (CSIC), Granada, Spain, explains the significance of this find: “The dust around Proxima is important because, following the discovery of the terrestrial planet Proxima b, it’s the first indication of the presence of an elaborate planetary system, and not just a single planet, around the star closest to our Sun.”

Dust belts are the remains of material that did not form into larger bodies such as planets. The particles of rock and ice in these belts vary in size from the tiniest dust grain, smaller than a millimetre across, up to asteroid-like bodies many kilometres in diameter.

Dust appears to lie in a belt that extends a few hundred million kilometres from Proxima Centauri and has a total mass of about one hundredth of the Earth’s mass. This belt is estimated to have a temperature of about –230 degrees Celsius, as cold as that of the Kuiper Belt in the outer Solar System.

There are also hints in the ALMA data of another belt of even colder dust about ten times further out. If confirmed, the nature of an outer belt is intriguing, given its very cold environment far from a star that is cooler and fainter than the Sun. Both belts are much further from Proxima Centauri than the planet Proxima b, which orbits at just four million kilometres from its parent star.

Guillem Anglada explains the implications of the discovery: “This result suggests that Proxima Centauri may have a multiple planet system with a rich history of interactions that resulted in the formation of a dust belt. Further study may also provide information that might point to the locations of as yet unidentified additional planets.”

The dust structures found around Proxima Centauri. Credit: Manuel López Puertas & Mayra Osorio (IAA-CSIC)


Proxima Centauri's planetary system is also particularly interesting because there are plans — the Starshot project — for future direct exploration of the system with microprobes attached to laser-driven sails. A knowledge of the dust environment around the star is essential for planning such a mission.

Co-author Pedro Amado, also from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, explains that this observation is just the start: “These first results show that ALMA can detect dust structures orbiting around Proxima. Further observations will give us a more detailed picture of Proxima's planetary system. In combination with the study of protoplanetary discs around young stars, many of the details of the processes that led to the formation of the Earth and the Solar System about 4600 million years ago will be unveiled. What we are seeing now is just the appetiser compared to what is coming!”.

A multidisciplinary study

In fact, these are the first results of a more ambitious project, designed jointly by several departments of the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia to characterize the conditions of the planetary system of Proxima Centauri. "We are combining our knowledge about the Solar System, stellar physics, and the formation of discs around stars, as well as our experience with different observation techniques to obtain the most complete image possible of the planetary system closest to ours", concludes Antxon Alberdi, Director of the IAA-CSIC and co-author of the work.


Referencia:  “ALMA Discovery of Dust Belts Around Proxima Centauri”, Guillem Anglada et al. Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA-CSIC)
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