Dr Walter Gear, from MSSL, is part of a team of UK and US astronomers who, in the April 23rd edition of Nature, announce the first direct pictures of huge disk-like structures of dust around three nearby stars. The images were obtained at wavelengths close to 1mm using SCUBA, a new camera on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, for which Dr Gear was the Project Scientist during its design and manufacture at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh.
This figure shows an image of the dust emission around the star
Fomalhaut, which is 25 light-years away from the Earth. The two peaks
are at a distance just larger than that of the orbit of Pluto from our
sun and suggest that Fomalhaut is surrounded by a torus (or
doughnut-shaped) ring of dust, as indeed is our own Sun. The very clear
empty region inside the ring is what would be expected if the inner
region had been cleared by massive planets, just as Jupiter and Saturn
cleared our own inner Solar System of dusty debris in the early stages of
its evolution. Although at this point other mechanisms for clearing the
dust cannot be ruled out, the evidence is certainly consistent with
Fomalhaut having a planetary system not dissimilar to our own.
More information about this exciting new discovery may be found on the web
pages of the Joint Astronomy Centre, Hawaii in this special