Skip to main content

Planets and planetesimals around kappa CrB

My collaborators and I have just published a paper announcing a newly detected planet and dust disk around the subgiant kappa Coronea Borealis. I've written about kappa CrB previously here. Back then I only knew of one planet orbiting the star. With additional RV measurements, we discovered a second planet in a long-period orbit. The period of the second planet is so long that we only see a portion of the orbit, which looks like a linear RV "trend," or constant acceleration (scientists: think first-order Taylor expansion of a Keplerian orbit).
Radial velocity (RV) measurements of kappa CrB made with the Lick and Keck telescopes. The first measurement was made when I was a fourth-year graduate student at Berkeley. Other key events are labeled. The solid line shows the best-fitting two-planet solution, and the dashed line shows the acceleration due to the second planet.

Additionally, my collaborators Amy Bonsor and Grant Kennedy used the Herschel space telescope to observe the star in the far infrared. At these long wavelengths, the star is very faint, but any warm material around the star will be bright. Amy detected extended emission around the star consistent with a flattened disk of warm dust grains, similar to our Kuiper belt, only much larger and more massive.

The dust disk around kappa CrB (not to be confused with a space eyeball)

Here's the link to the press release (also reprinted below), and the paper.

Retired Star Found With Planets and a Debris Disk

ESA’s Herschel space observatory has provided the first images of a dust belt – produced by colliding comets or asteroids – orbiting a subgiant star known to host a planetary system.
After billions of years steadily burning hydrogen in their cores, stars like our Sun exhaust this central fuel reserve and start burning it in shells around the core. They swell to become subgiant stars, before later becoming red giants.
At least during the subgiant phase, planets, asteroids and comet belts around these ‘retired’ stars are expected to survive, but observations are needed to measure their properties. One approach is to search for discs of dust around the stars, generated by collisions between populations of asteroids or comets.
Thanks to the sensitive far-infrared detection capabilities of the Herschel space observatory, astronomers have been able to resolve bright emission around Kappa Coronae Borealis (κ CrB, or Kappa Cor Bor), indicating the presence of a dusty debris disc.
The star is a little heavier than our own Sun at 1.5 solar masses, is around 2.5 billion years old and lies at a distance of roughly 100 light years.
From ground-based observations, it is known to host one giant planet roughly twice the mass of Jupiter orbiting at a distance equivalent to the Asteroid Belt in our own Solar System. A second planet is suspected, but its mass is not well constrained.
Herschel’s detection provides rare insight into the life of planetary systems orbiting subgiant stars, and enables a detailed study of the architecture of its planet and disc system.
“This is the first ‘retired’ star that we have found with a debris disc and one or more planets,” says Amy Bonsor of the Institute de Planétologie et d’Astrophysique de Grenoble, and lead author of the study.
“The disc has survived the star’s entire lifetime without being destroyed. That’s very different to our own Solar System, where most of the debris was cleared away in a phase called the Late Heavy Bombardment era, around 600 million years after the Sun formed.”
Dr Bonsor’s team used models to propose three possible configurations for the disc and planets that fit Herschel’s observations of Kappa Cor Bor.
The first model has just one continuous dust belt extending from 20 AU to 220 AU (where 1 AU, or Astronomical Unit, is the distance between Earth and Sun).
By comparison, the icy debris disc in our Solar System – known as the Kuiper Belt – spans a narrower range of distances, 30–50 AU from the Sun.
In this model, one of the planets orbits at a distance of greater than 7 AU from the star, and its gravitational influence may sculpt the inner edge of the disc.

A variation on this model has the disc being stirred by the gravitational influence of both companions, mixing it up such that the rate of dust production in the disc peaks at around 70–80 AU from the star.
In another interesting scenario, the dust disc is divided into two narrow belts, centred on 40 AU and 165 AU, respectively. Here, the outermost companion may orbit between the two belts between a distance of about 7 AU and 70 AU, opening the possibility of it being rather more massive than a planet, possibly a substellar brown dwarf.
“It is a mysterious and intriguing system: is there a planet or even two planets sculpting one wide disc, or does the star have a brown dwarf companion that has split the disc in two?” says Dr Bonsor.
As this is the first known example of a subgiant star with planets and a debris disc orbiting it, more examples are needed to determine whether Kappa Cor Bor is unusual or not.
 “Thanks to Herschel’s sensitive far-infrared capabilities and its rich dataset, we already have hints of other subgiant stars that may also have dusty discs. More work will be needed to see if they also have planets,” says Göran Pilbratt, ESA’s Herschel project scientist.


Popular posts from this blog

The Long Con

Hiding in Plain Sight

ESPN has a series of sports documentaries called 30 For 30. One of my favorites is called Broke which is about how professional athletes often make tens of millions of dollars in their careers yet retire with nothing. One of the major "leaks" turns out to be con artists, who lure athletes into elaborate real estate schemes or business ventures. This naturally raises the question: In a tightly-knit social structure that is a sports team, how can con artists operate so effectively and extensively? The answer is quite simple: very few people taken in by con artists ever tell anyone what happened. Thus, con artists can operate out in the open with little fear of consequences because they are shielded by the collective silence of their victims.
I can empathize with this. I've lost money in two different con schemes. One was when I was in college, and I received a phone call that I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. All I needed to do was p…

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:

It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…