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EarthSky // Science Wire, Space Release Date: Mar 10, 2014

Death stars in Orion blast planets before they even form

Young stars in the Orion Nebula get their potential planet-forming dust and gas blasted away if they’re near enough to ‘death stars’ – massive O-type stars that emit fierce ultraviolet radiation.

Image credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; B. Saxton

This artist’s concept shows two proplyds, or protostars, around a massive O-type star. The nearer proplyd is having its planet-forming dust and gas blasted away by the radiation from the star. The farther proplyd is able to retain its planet-making potential. Image credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; B. Saxton

The Orion Nebula is home to hundreds of young stars and even younger protostars known as proplyds. Many of these nascent systems will go on to develop planets, while others will have their planet-forming dust and gas blasted away by the fierce ultraviolet radiation emitted by massive O-type stars that lurk nearby.

A team of astronomers from Canada and the United States has used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to study the often deadly relationship between highly luminous O-type stars and nearby protostars in the Orion Nebula. Their data reveal that protostars within 0.1 light-years (about 600 billion miles) of an O-type star are doomed to have their cocoons of dust and gas stripped away in just a few millions years, much faster than planets are able to form.

“O-type stars, which are really monsters compared to our sun, emit tremendous amounts of ultraviolet radiation and this can play havoc during the development of young planetary systems,” remarked Rita Mann, an astronomer with the National Research Council of Canada in Victoria, and lead author on a paper in the Astrophysical Journal. “Using ALMA, we looked at dozens of embryonic stars with planet-forming potential and, for the first time, found clear indications where protoplanetary disks simply vanished under the intense glow of a neighboring massive star.”

Many, if not all, sun-like stars are born in crowded stellar nurseries similar to the Orion Nebula. Over the course of just a few million years, grains of dust and reservoirs of gas combine into larger, denser bodies. Left relatively undisturbed, these systems will eventually evolve into fully fledged star systems, with planets – large and small – and ultimately drift away to become part of the galactic stellar population.

Astronomers believe that massive yet short-lived stars in and around large interstellar clouds are essential for this ongoing process of star formation. At the end of their lives, massive stars explode as supernovas, seeding the surrounding area with dust and heavy elements that will get taken up in the next generation of stars. These explosions also provide the kick necessary to initiate a new round of star and planet formation. But while they still shine bright, these larger stars can be downright deadly to planets if an embryonic solar systems strays too close.

“Massive stars are hot and hundreds of times more luminous than our sun,” said James Di Francesco, also with the National Research Council of Canada. “Their energetic photons can quickly deplete a nearby protoplanetary disk by heating up its gas, breaking it up, and sweeping it away.”

Read more from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory