An illustration of the inner and outer sections of the Epsilon Eridani system compared with the Solar System. Credits: NASA/JPL/Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC)
A NASA study of a nearby planetary system has confirmed it is remarkably similar to our own.
The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) studied the system, which is located 10.5 lightyears away around the star Epsilon Eridani in the constellation Eridanus.
Previous studies had shown that eps Eri, as the star is known, is surrounded by a disc of gas, dust and rocky bodies leftover from the construction of the planetary system.
Planets and other large bodies form from a disc of gas and dust surrounding young stars, and the disc – known as a ‘debris disc’ – often remains after planets have formed.
Measurements of the motion of the star eps Eri indicate that a planet with nearly the same mass as Jupiter is orbiting it at a distance similar to that between Jupiter and the Sun.
New images captured by SOFIA have enabled a team of scientists to generate two theoretical models showing the location of warm debris in the eps Eri system, such as dust and gas.
One model shows that this material is in two narrow rings around the star, which would correspond to the asteroid belt and the orbit of Uranus in the Solar System.
The other model attributes the warm debris to dust originating in an outer zone, like the Kuiper Belt in the Solar System, and filling in a disc of debris toward the central star.
Studies like these can help scientists draw conclusions about how our own Solar System formed.
“The high spatial resolution of SOFIA combined with the unique wavelength coverage and impressive dynamic range of the FORCAST camera allowed us to resolve the warm emission around eps Eri, confirming the model that located the warm material near the Jovian planet’s orbit,” says Kate Su of the University of Arizona, who led the study.
“Furthermore, a planetary mass object is needed to stop the sheet of dust from the outer zone, similar to Neptune’s role in our solar system.
It really is impressive how eps Eri, a much younger version of our solar system, is put together like ours.”