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Scientists Find Infant Solar System Awash in Carbon
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Begins: Wednesday, June 7, 2006 at 1:00pm

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+ Press release

Dr. Kimberly Weaver
Associate Director for Science of the Astrophysics Division
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center


Dr. Aki Roberge
NASA Postdoctoral Fellow, Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Dr. Conel Alexander
Department of Terrestrial Magnetism
Carnegie Institution of Washington

Dr. Marc J. Kuchner
Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

+ Contributor Biographies and Photos

Beta Pic Image 2
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Visual 1: The Debris Disk Around Beta Pictoris
This image of the circumstellar disk around the southern star Beta Pictoris was obtained with the 3.6-m telescope and the Grenoble Observatory coronograph. It shows (in false colors) the light reflected by dust around the young star at infrared wavelengths. The disk is very close to edge-on. This is a coronagraphic image, meaning that light from the bright central star was blocked out during observation making it easier to see the relatively faint dust. The Beta Pic disk is very likely an infant solar system in the process of forming terrestrial planets. [June 1997] Credit: Jean-Luc Beuzit, et al. Grenoble Observatory, European Southern Observatory

In the Beta Pictoris Disk
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Visual 2: In the Beta Pictoris Disk
Artist’s conception of the view towards the young star Beta Pictoris from the outer edge of its disk. This disk of dust and gas orbiting the star is produced by collisions between and evaporation of asteroids and comets. A giant planet may have already formed and terrestrial planets may be forming. A young terrestrial planet gaining mass by collision with an asteroid is shown in the middle of the panel. The young terrestrial planet is dry, without an atmosphere. It will likely acquire one later from the impact of water (or other kind of ice)-rich asteroids.

Astronomers using NASA's Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer telescope have found that the gas in the Beta Pictoris disk is extremely carbon-rich, much more so than expected based on what is known about asteroids and comets in the Solar System. The inset panels show two possible outcomes for mature terrestrial planets around Beta Pic. The top one is a water-rich planet similar to the Earth; the bottom one is a carbon-rich planet, with a smoggy, methane-rich atmosphere similar to that of Titan, a moon of Saturn. Credit:NASA/FUSE/Lynette Cook

Conel Image 2
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Visual 3: Interplanetary Dust Particles (IDPs)
An interplanetary dust particle (IDP) collected in the stratosphere by a NASA U2 spy plane. The particle is about 10 millionths of a meter (10 microns) across. IDPs are thought to come from comets and primitive asteroids. Except for gases like hydrogen and helium, the compositions of these particles are similar to that of the Sun. They can also be quite carbon-rich because they contain abundant organic matter and carbonates.

Conel Image 3
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Visual 4: Chondritic Meteorite
A primitive chondritic meteorite. This image is about 10 cm across. Chondritic meteorites are fragments of asteroids. Like interplanetary dust particles, the abundances of rock forming elements in these meteorites are similar to that of the Sun. They also contain carbon in the form of organics and carbonate, but less than IDPs.

Visual 5: Comparison of Compositions of Beta Pic Gas and Primitive Meteorites
Comparison of Compositions of Beta Pic Gas and Primitive Meteorites
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Image above: A comparison of the gas composition in Beta Pic with that of chondritic meteorites. If the gas was chondrite-like, all the elements would have abundances of 1. Deviations from 1 imply processes have enriched or depleted the gas in particular elements. Most elements have abundances (relative to Fe) that are remarkably similar to chondritic. Carbon is the obvious exception. The line is a very simplistic model in which an energetic event vaporized chondritic material and then as the vapor cooled most (>99%) of the rock forming elements condensed out to reform dust leaving the carbon in the gas. Despite the nice fit, there are significant problems. Rock forming elements would probably not condense as one, but in a sequence according to their volatility - the least volatile first. So normally one would expect the less volatile elements to be more depleted in the gas than the more volatile ones. Sulfur is much more depleted in the Beta Pic gas than one would predict, and the most refractory elements (e.g. Ca and Al) are not depleted enough. Credit: NASA

ST Cutaway Diagram
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Visual 6: Silicate Planets vs. Carbon Planets
The Earth is a silicate planet---made mostly from silicon and oxygen, with a core of metals. A carbon planet might be mostly made of carbon compounds like silicon carbide and diamond, as this cutaway diagram suggests. Credit: Sky & Telescope
Carbon Planet
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Visual 7: Artist's Concept of a Carbon Planet
Artist's concept of a carbon planet with a tar covered surface. A meteor impact has exposed a diamond layer in the planet's interior. For permission to reproduce this figure, please contact Lynette R. Cook, Credit: Lynette Cook

Related links:
+ Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer
+ ExoPlanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory
+ NASA Goddard's Universe Division
+ NASA Planetary Photojournal

More on this page:
+ Press release
+ Contributor Biographies and Photos