Deformed disc in the Orion constellation may birth even weirder planets

The SPHERE image with an ESO artist impression

The SPHERE image with an ESO artist impression

It's the first direct evidence that such misalignment - known as "disc tearing", and predicted in modelling - can occur in the wild.

The system is dubbed GW Orionis and is situated approximately 1,300 light-years away in the Orion constellation. It consists of two stars, locked in orbit around each other at a distance of roughly one astronomical unit (the average distance between Earth and the Sun), with a third star orbiting the pair on a misaligned orbit at a distance of eight astronomical units.

The system comprises three rings encircled around three stars.

"If future studies find this exotic planet - whether it already exists or is still forming - it would be the first planet ever observed to orbit three stars, and it would possess a very unusual orbit".

A cloud of gas and dust whirling around a young star system 1,300 light-years away is quite unusual. A mass of matter in a protostellar cloud. It feeds the growing star which spools a huge disk of gas and dust.

In our own Solar System, this disc was relatively stable and flat, resulting in Earth and other planets of the Solar System all orbiting on the same plane. 2020. A triple star system with a misaligned and warped circumstellar disk shaped by disk tearing.

The odd misalignment in the protoplanetary disc in GW Orionis was first found in ALMA observations in 2017.

Representation of the disk structure and stellar orbit of GW Orionis, as derived from the ALMA and VLT observations by Kraus et al.

"Instead it is warped and has a misaligned ring that has broken away from the disc".

"This is the best way to create planets in orbit as intense as has ever been discovered", Stephen Cross, professor of astronomy at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, told

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"But the odd warp in the disk is confirmed by a twisted pattern that ALMA measured in the gas of the disk".

An global team of experts, led by the astronomers at the University of Exeter, identified GW Orionis where planet formation might take place in inclined dust and gas rings within a warped circumstellar disc around multiple stars based on observations with the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT), Georgia State University's Center for High-Angular Resolution Astronomy telescope array (CHARA), and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

The image on the right is the image taken of the disc, with the misaligned ring while the left image is an artist's impression of what the inner ring would look like while surrounded by the disc.ESO/L. Calçada, Exeter/Kraus et al. Said astronomer Stephen Cross University of Exeter in the UK.

"Combining this information allows us to derive the 3D orientation of the misaligned ring and of the warped disk surface".

Based on what they already knew about the star system, the team behind the new study combined observations with computer simulations to reconstruct what happened over the lifetime of GW Orionis.

Using telescope arrays operating at infrared wavelengths, the researchers also mapped the orbits of the three stars for over 11 years, covering a full orbital period.

Together, the two studies show how the misaligned movements of GW Ori's stars may have warped the solar system's dusty disk through a process called "disk-tearing effect", in which the gravitational pull of different stars causes the disk to rip into distinctly separate rings. The simulation revealed that the stars had torn apart their disc themselves due to their conflicting gravitational pull, with each one pulling on the disc in a different direction.

The team observed the system with the SPHERE instrument on ESO's VLT and with ALMA, and were able to image the inner ring and confirm its misalignment, revealing that this inner ring contains 30 Earth masses of dust, which could be enough to form planets. Said astronomer Nanke van der Merrell Of Victoria University. "This planet has likely carved a dust gap and broken the disk at the location of the current inner and outer rings", she adds.

If there was such a planet, it would be the first time we've ever seen a three-star orbit - but of course, it's too early to claim. More observations of the system are needed to try and solve this puzzle.

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