Kevin Luhman observes a tiny possible solar system

Astronomers have identified a dusty disk of planet-building material around an very low-mass brown dwarf star. OTS 44 is only 15 times the mass of Jupiter. Previously, the smallest brown dwarf known to host a planet-forming disc was 25 to 30 times more massive than Jupiter.

On November 29, 2005, astronomers announced the discovery of what might become the smallest solar system yet known.

Our solar system consists of our sun and planets. This tiny potential solar system is, at this point, just a flat disc of gas and dust found near an object with 100 times less mass than our sun.

The object is too small to fuse hydrogen in its interior and thus shine like an ordinary star. Astronomers call such objects brown dwarfs. Some scientists think that in another 10 million years, the gas and dust in the disk around this brown dwarf will collapse to form small planets. Kevin Luhman at Pennsylvania State University led the discovery team.

Kevin Luhman: One of the fundamental questions in astronomy is: under what conditions do planets form? Do they form only around stars like our sun? Or do they form in other circumstances, in around different kinds of stars, bigger stars or smaller stars? Or even do planets form around very small bodies like brown dwarfs?

Luhman said that by looking for planetary systems in very diverse environments, astronomers can get an idea of whether our solar system is like others out there, or whether there are many different types of solar systems.

Our thanks to Research Corporation, a foundation for the advancement of science.

Our thanks to:
Kevin Luhman
Penn State University

February 6, 2006

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