Nearby planetary system seen in breathtaking detail
A new Webb Space Telescope image of the bright, nearby star Fomalhaut reveals details never seen before, including nested rings of dust that hint at the forces of unseen planets.

University Communications and Space Telescope Science Institute
May 8, 2023

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This image shows how the components of the Fomalhaut debris system relate to each other.
This image shows how the components of the Fomalhaut debris system relate to each other. Observations made with the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array reveal sand-sized grains orbiting the star, chipping away at each other (shown in red). The resulting finer-grained particles, traced by the Hubble Space Telescope and shown here in blue, are blown out of the outer ring by the photons streaming from the star. JWST's MIRI instrument provides the full picture by revealing warm dust filling the inner part of the Fomalhaut system (orange). This dust is organized into a second ring, indicating the presence of one or more planets nearby. Adam Block and András Gáspár/Steward Observatory

A team led by University of Arizona astronomers used NASA's James Webb Space Telescope to image the warm dust around a nearby young star, Fomalhaut, to study the first asteroid belt ever seen outside of our solar system in infrared light. The image shows nested concentric rings of dust, some of which had never been seen before. These belts most likely are carved by the gravitational forces produced by embedded, unseen planets.

To the astronomers' surprise, the dusty structures are much more complex than the asteroid and Kuiper dust belts of our solar system. There are three nested belts extending out to 14 billion miles, or 23 billion kilometers, from the star; that's 150 times the distance of Earth from the sun. The scale of the outermost belt is roughly twice the scale of our solar system's Kuiper belt, which consists of small bodies and cold dust beyond Neptune, the outermost known planet. The inner belts in the Fomalhaut system – which had never been seen before – were revealed by Webb for the first time. The results are published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The belts encircle the young hot star, which is about 25 light-years from Earth and can be seen with the naked eye as the brightest star in the southern constellation Piscis Austrinus. The dusty belts are the debris from collisions of larger bodies, similar to asteroids and comets, and are frequently described as debris disks. Astronomers first discovered Fomalhaut's disk in 1983. But there has never been a view as spectacular – or as revealing – as Webb's.


Image showing the inner and outer asteroid belts of the Fomalhaut system
This image shows the Fomalhaut system's features, including the inner and outer asteroid belts. The "great dust cloud" is highlighted, and pullouts show it in two infrared wavelengths, 23 and 25.5 microns. The scale bar is labeled in astronomical units, which is the average distance between Earth and the sun, or 93 million miles. The outer ring spans about 240 Earth-sun distances. NASA, ESA, CSA, András Gáspár/Steward Observatory, Alyssa Pagan/STScI

"I would describe Fomalhaut as the archetype of debris disks found elsewhere in our galaxy, because it has components similar to those we have in our own planetary system," said lead study author András Gáspár, an assistant astronomer at UArizona's Steward Observatory. "By looking at the patterns in these rings, we can begin to make a little sketch of what a planetary system ought to look like – if we could actually take a deep enough picture to see the suspected planets."

The idea of a protoplanetary disk around a star goes back to the late 1700s when astronomers Immanuel Kant and Pierre-Simon Laplace independently developed the theory that the sun and planets formed from a rotating gas cloud that collapsed and flattened due to gravity. Debris disks develop later, following the formation of planets and once the primordial gas has dispersed. As small bodies like asteroids collide, their surfaces are pulverized into huge clouds of dust and other debris. Observations of their dust provide unique clues to the structure of an exoplanetary system, reaching down to Earth-sized planets and even asteroids, which are much too small to see individually.

Sharp images of the outermost belt around Fomalhaut have previously been taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, the Herschel Space Observatory and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA. However, none of them found any structure inside of it. The inner belts have been resolved for the first time by Webb in infrared light.

"Where Webb really excels is that we're able to physically resolve the thermal glow from dust in those inner regions," said Schuyler Wolff, an assistant research professor at Steward and a co-author on the paper. "So, you can see inner belts that we could never see before."

Hubble, ALMA and Webb are tag-teaming to assemble a holistic view of the debris disks around a number of stars.

"With Hubble and ALMA, we were able to image a bunch of Kuiper belt analogs, and we've learned loads about how outer disks form and evolve," Wolff said. "But we need Webb to allow us to image a dozen or so asteroid belts elsewhere. We can learn just as much about the inner warm regions of these disks as Hubble and ALMA taught us about the colder outer regions."

These belts most likely are carved by the gravitational forces produced by unseen planets. Similarly, inside our solar system, Jupiter corrals the asteroid belt; the inner edge of the Kuiper belt is sculpted by Neptune, and the outer edge could be shepherded by yet-unseen bodies beyond it. As Webb images more systems, astronomers will gain a more detailed understanding of the configurations of their planets.

"The belts around Fomalhaut are kind of a mystery novel: Where are the planets?" said team member George Rieke, a UArizona Regents Professor of Astronomy who serves as the U.S. science lead for Webb's Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, which made these observations. "I think it's not a very big leap to say there's probably a really interesting planetary system around the star."

"We definitely didn't expect the more complex structure with the second intermediate belt and then the broader asteroid belt," added Wolff. "That structure is very exciting because any time an astronomer sees a gap and rings in a disk, they say, 'There could be an embedded planet shaping the rings.'"

Webb also imaged what Gáspár dubs "the great dust cloud" that may be evidence for a collision that occurred in the outer ring between two protoplanetary bodies. This is a different feature from a suspected planet first seen inside the outer ring by Hubble in 2008Subsequent Hubble observations made by Gáspár's team showed that by 2014 the object had vanished. A plausible interpretation is that this newly discovered feature, like the earlier one, is an expanding cloud of very fine dust particles from two icy bodies that smashed into each other.


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Daniel Stolte

Science Writer, University Communications