Not necessarily what you might think when you imagine stars, and the creation of planets, according to new observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Shock waves around dusty, young stars might be creating the raw materials for planets; the evidence comes in the form of tiny crystals. Spitzer detected crystals similar in make-up to quartz around young stars just beginning to form planets. The crystals, called cristobalite and tridymite, are known to reside in comets, in volcanic lava flows on Earth, and in some meteorites that land on Earth. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope detected quartz-like crystals called cristobalite in young planetary systems. Cristobalite, which is shown here in this magnified view, is found on Earth in volcanic lava flows. Photo courtesy of George Rossman of Caltech.
Planets are born out of swirling pancake-like disks of dust and gas that surround young stars. They start out as mere grains of dust swimming around in a disk of gas and dust, before lumping together to form full-fledged planets. During the early stages of planet development, the dust grains crystallize and adhere together, while the disk itself starts to settle and flatten. This occurs in the first millions of years of a star's life.
Astronomers already knew that crystallized dust grains stick together to form larger particles, which later lump together to form planets. But they were surprised to find cristobalite and tridymite. What's so special about these particular crystals? They require flash heating events, such as shock waves, to form. The findings suggest that the same kinds of shock waves that cause sonic booms from speeding jets are responsible for creating the stuff of planets throughout the universe.
"By studying these other star systems, we can learn about the very beginnings of our own planets 4.6 billion years ago," said William Forrest of the University of Rochester, New York. "Spitzer has given us a better idea of how the raw materials of planets are produced very early on." Forrest and University of Rochester graduate student Ben Sargent led the research, to appear in the Astrophysical Journal.
When Forrest and his colleagues used Spitzer to examine five young planet-forming disks about 400 light-years away, they detected the signature of silica crystals. Silica is made of only silicon and oxygen and is the main ingredient in glass. When melted and crystallized, it can make the large hexagonal quartz crystals often sold as mystical tokens. When heated to even higher temperatures, it can also form small crystals like those commonly found around volcanoes.
The crystals require temperatures as high as 1,220 Kelvin (about 1,740 degrees Fahrenheit) to form. But young planet-forming disks are only about 100 to 1,000 Kelvin (about minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit to 1,340 Fahrenheit), too cold to make the crystals. Because the crystals require heating followed by rapid cooling to form, astronomers theorized that shock waves could be the cause. Shock waves, or supersonic waves of pressure, are thought to be created in planet-forming disks when clouds of gas swirling around at high speeds collide. Some theorists think that shock waves might also accompany the formation of giant planets. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has, for the first time, detected tiny quartz-like crystals sprinkled in young planetary systems. The crystals, which are types of silica minerals called cristobalite and tridymite, can be seen close-up in the black-and-white insets (cristobalite is on the left, and tridymite on the right). The main picture is an artist's concept of a young star and its swirling disk of planet-forming materials. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The findings are in agreement with local evidence from our own solar system. Spherical pebbles, called chondrules, found in ancient meteorites that fell to Earth are also thought to have been crystallized by shock waves in our solar system's young planet-forming disk. In addition, NASA's Stardust mission found tridymite minerals in comet Wild 2.
Other authors of the paper include C. Tayrien, M.K. McClure, A.R. Basu, P. Mano, Dan Watson, C.J. Bohac, K.H. Kim and J.D. Green of the University of Rochester; A Li of the University of Missouri, Columbia; E. Furlan of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and G.C. Sloan of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.
JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, also in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. Spitzer's infrared spectrograph, which made the observations, was built by Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Its development was led by Jim Houck of Cornell. You can learn more at this site.