Astronomers discover possible ‘toddler’ exoplanet by accident

While observing a young star system, astronomers noticed the star had a small, mysterious companion in its orbit.


 

Astronomers believe they’ve stumbled upon a “toddler” exoplanet while observing a young star 540 million light years from Earth.

The team, led by Christian Ginski of Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, was studying a binary system called CS Cha, which is located in a star-forming region in the southern constellation of Chamaeleon. To observe the system, the team used the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research (SPHERE) instrument, part of the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.

At just 2 to 3 million years old, CS Cha is a remarkably young star system. It’s at the age where astronomers would expect it to be surrounded by a protoplanetary disc of gas and dust that eventually gives rise to planets. The team was looking for this disc when they noticed in the photographs a small dot around the star.


CS Cha system with companion. (Image: Ginski et al.)

The dot suggested CS Cha had a companion, one that could be a very young exoplanet. To rule out the possibility that the observation was a glitch, the team looked at two sets of old photographs of the star system–one from the VLT’s NACO instrument 11 years ago, another taken by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 19 years ago.

The dot was observed in both sets. But that doesn’t mean scientists can confirm exactly what the companion is. It could be a brown dwarf, a very low-mass star that’s too small to sustain hydrogen fusion. It could also be a young gas giant in the beginning stages of development—what’s known as a super-Jupiter.


 

Graphic of CS Cha and its surrounding dust cloud. (Image: Ginski et al.)

“We suspect that the companion is surrounded by his own dust disk,” Ginski said in a statement. “The tricky part is that the disk blocks a large part of the light, and that is why we can hardly determine the mass of the companion. So, it could be a brown dwarf but also a super-Jupiter in his toddler years. The classical planet-forming-models can't help us.”

Either scenario would amount to a rare discovery, considering the first direct photo of an exoplanet was announced in 2009, and “brown dwarf companions to solar-type stars are extremely rare,” as researcher Michael McElwain of Princeton University told Space.com.

The team’s paper is scheduled to be published in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.