Nov 30, 2023
An international team of astronomers have used the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope to provide the first observation of water and other molecules in the inner, rocky-planet-forming regions of a disc in one of the most extreme environments in our galaxy.
These results suggest that the conditions for rocky-planet formation, typically found in discs in regions where low-mass stars are formed, can also occur in regions where massive stars are formed and possibly in a broader range of environments.
These are the first results from the eXtreme UV Environments (XUE) James Webb Space Telescope programme that focuses on the characterisation of planet-forming discs in regions where massive stars are formed. These regions are likely representative of the environment in which most planetary systems formed. Understanding the impact of the environment on planet formation is important for scientists to gain insights into the diversity of the observed exoplanet populations.
The XUE programme targets a total of 15 discs in three areas of the Lobster Nebula (also known as NGC 6357), a large emission nebula roughly 5500 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Scorpius. The Lobster Nebula is one of the youngest and closest star formation regions hosting some of the most massive stars in our galaxy. Massive stars are hotter, and therefore emit more ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This can disperse the gas in the disc, making their expected lifetime as short as a million years. Thanks to Webb, astronomers can now study the effect of UV radiation on the inner rocky-planet-forming regions of protoplanetary discs around stars like our Sun.
“Webb is the only telescope with the spatial resolution and sensitivity to study planet-forming discs in regions where massive stars are formed,” said team lead María Claudia Ramírez-Tannus of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.
Astronomers aim to characterise the physical properties and chemical composition of the rocky-planet-forming regions of discs in the Lobster Nebula using Webb’s Medium Resolution Spectrometer (MRS) of the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI). This first result focuses on the protoplanetary disc termed XUE 1, which is located in the star cluster Pismis 24.
“Only the MIRI wavelength range and spectral resolution allow us to probe the molecular inventory and physical conditions of the warm gas and dust where rocky planets form,” said team member Arjan Bik of Stockholm University in Sweden.
Because of its location near several massive stars in NGC6357, scientists expect XUE 1 to have been constantly exposed to a high ultraviolet radiation field throughout its life. However, in this extreme environment the team still detected a range of molecules that are the building blocks of rocky planets.
“We find that the inner disc around XUE 1 is remarkably similar to those in nearby star-forming regions,” said team member Rens Waters of Radboud University in the Netherlands. “We’ve detected water and other molecules like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen cyanide and acetylene. However, the emission found was weaker than some models predicted. This might imply a small outer disc radius.”
“We were surprised and excited because this is the first time that these molecules have been detected under such extreme conditions,” added Lars Cuijpers of Radboud University. The team also found evidence of small, partially crystalline silicate dust grains at the disc’s surface. These are considered to be the building blocks of rocky planets.
These results are good news for rocky planet formation, as the science team finds that the conditions in the inner disc resemble those found in the well-studied discs located in nearby star-forming regions, where only low-mass stars form. This suggests that rocky planets can form in a much broader range of environments than previously believed.
The team notes that the remaining observations from the XUE programme are crucial to establishing the commonality of these conditions.
“XUE1 shows us that the conditions to form rocky planets are there, so the next step is to check how common that is,” says Ramírez-Tannus. “We will observe other discs in the same region to determine the frequency with which these conditions can be observed.”