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Astronomers Discover A Nearby Star System Just Like Our Own Solar System
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- Date: Thu, 9 Jul 1998 16:21:56 GMT
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Joint Astronomy Center
Jane Greaves (JAC)
phone (USA) (808) 969 6562 (until July 3rd)
phone (USA) (805) 683 6722, room 214 (from July 5th)
USA Press Contact:
Stuart Wolpert (UCLA)
phone (USA) (310) 206 0511
UK Press Contact:
Helen Walker (RAL)
phone (UK) 01235 446490
Wednesday 8th July, 1998
Astronomers discover a nearby star system just like our own Solar System
HILO, HAWAII -- An international team of astronomers from the
Joint Astronomy Centre (JAC) in Hawaii, the University of
California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Royal Observatory in
Edinburgh announced today the discovery of a ring of dust
particles around a nearby star, Epsilon Eridani, that appears to
signify a Solar System very similar to our own.
The ring is "strikingly similar" to the outer comet zone in our
Solar System, and shows an intriguing bright region that may be
particles trapped around a young planet, said JAC astronomer Jane
Greaves, who led the research team.
"What we see looks just like the comet belt on the outskirts of
our Solar System, only younger," said Greaves, who presented the
findings today at the "Protostars and Planets" Conference in Santa
Barbara. "It's the first time we've seen anything like this around
a star similar to our Sun. In addition, we were amazed to see a
bright spot in the ring, which may be dust trapped in orbit around
Why is Epsilon Eridani so interesting?
Greaves was a member of the international team that reported new
images of dusty disks around the hotter stars Fomalhaut and Vega
in April (Dusty Disks). However, the new image of Epsilon Eridani
is even more exciting for several reasons:
"Epsilon Eridani is far more similar to our Sun than either Vega
Fomalhaut." she said. "This star system is a strong candidate
for planets, but if there are planets, it's unlikely there could
be life yet. When the Earth was this young, it was still being
very heavily bombarded by comets and other debris."
"It is also a star in our local neighbourhood, being only about 10
light years away, which is why we can see so much detail in the
Epsilon Eridani is clearly visible to the naked eye, in the
constellation Eridanus (the River), which stretches from the foot
of Orion (near the bright star Rigel) to the 9th brightest star in
the sky, the southerly Achernar (barely visible from the USA and
Europe). Epsilon Eridani is among the 10 closest star systems to
"If an astronomer could have seen what our Solar System looked
like four billion years ago, it would have been very much as
Epsilon Eridani looks today," said Benjamin Zuckerman, UCLA
professor of physics and astronomy. "This is a star system very
like our own, and the first time anyone has found something that
truly resembles our Solar System; it's one thing to suspect that
it exists, but another to actually see it, and this is the first
The research team -- which also includes astronomers from the
University of Arizona, University College London, and the
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory -- has submitted its findings to
the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the most widely-read scholarly
journal in astronomy.
More about the discovery:
Beyond Pluto in our Solar System is a region containing more than
70,000 large comets, and hundreds of millions of smaller ones,
called the "Kuiper belt". The image obtained by Greaves' team
shows dust particles that the astronomers believe are analogous to
our Kuiper belt at the same distance from Epsilon Eridani as the
Kuiper belt is from our Sun. Although the image cannot reveal
comets directly, the dust that is revealed is believed to be
debris from comets, Greaves said.
Epsilon Eridani's inner region contains about 1,000 times more
dust than our Solar System's inner region, which may mean it has
about 1,000 times more comets, the astronomers said. Epsilon
Eridani is believed to be only 500 million years to 1 billion
years old; our Sun is estimated to be 4.5 billion years old, and
its inner region is believed to have looked very similar at that
In our Solar System, the first 600 million years was a time of
"heavy bombardment" when the planets were assaulted by massive
meteorites and other celestial objects until the gravitation of
Jupiter and Saturn cleaned out these destructive objects. Life on
Earth probably did not start until after the era of heavy
bombardment, said JAC astronomer Wayne Holland.
How was the new image obtained?
The new image -- which is from short-radio wavelengths, and is not
an optical picture -- was obtained using the 15-meter James Clerk
Maxwell Telescope at the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hilo, Hawaii.
The JCMT is the world's largest telescope dedicated to the study
of light at "submillimeter" wavelengths. The team of astronomers
used a revolutionary new camera called SCUBA (Submillimeter Common
User Bolometer Array), which was built by the Royal Observatory in
Edinburgh (which is now the UK Astronomical Technology Centre).
SCUBA uses detectors cooled to a tenth of a degree above absolute
zero (-273 degrees Celsius) to measure the tiny amounts of heat
emission from small dust particles at a wavelength close to
Implications and mysteries of the new discovery
What is the significance of the similarity between Epsilon Eridani
and our own Solar System?
"The implication is that if there is one system similar to ours at
such a close star, presumably there are many others," Zuckerman
said. "In the search for life elsewhere in the universe, we have
never known where to look before. Now, we are closing in on the
right candidates in the search for life."
Epsilon Eridani is probably too young to support even primitive
life, the astronomers said, but there may be other similar star
systems that are billions of years older, and are good candidates
to search for life. Although astronomers have not yet located a
star system that is the right age with the right atmosphere to
support life, they are getting closer.
A region near the star that is partially evacuated indicates that
planets may have formed, the astronomers said; the presence of
planets is the most likely explanation for the absence of dust in
this region because planets absorb the dust when they form.
What is the bizarre bright spot in the image obtained by the
"There may be a planet stirring up the dust in the ring and
causing the bright spot," said Bill Dent of the Royal Observatory,
Edinburgh, "or it could be the remnants of a massive collision
Epsilon Eridani is about three-quarters as massive as the sun, but
only one-third as luminous. When astronomer Frank Drake conducted
the first serious search for radio signals from other
civilizations in the late 1950s, Epsilon Eridani was one of the
first two stars he studied. Today, researchers know something
Drake did not: Epsilon Eridani is much too young to have
intelligent life. However, the new image shows there may be at
least one planet, and perhaps life in the future.
In addition to Greaves, Holland, Zuckerman and Dent, the
astronomers on the project are Gerald Moriarty-Schieven and Tim
Jenness at JAC; Harold Butner at the University of Arizona,
Tucson; Walter Gear at University College London; Helen Walker at
the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory; and UCLA graduate students
Richard Webb and Chris McCarthy.
Information and images are available on the World Wide Web at
The JCMT is operated by the Joint Astronomy Centre, on behalf of
the UK Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, the
Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, and the National
Research Council of Canada. This work was also supported, in part,
by NSF and NASA grants to UCLA.
The submillimetre image of Epsilon Eridani, and how the Solar System
would look if seen from the same distance
The left image is a false-colour view of a ring of dust particles around
Epsilon Eridani, taken with the SCUBA camera at the JCMT.
The right image is a sketch of how the Solar System would look (in optical
light) to an astronomer looking from Eps Eri, drawn to the same scale.
The submillimetre image shows the emission from dust particles, each a
fraction of a millimetre in size, orbiting around the star Epsilon
Eridani. The false-colour scale shows where the brightest regions are
(yellow/red), in contrast to the areas with very little dust (blue/black).
The dust lies mainly in a ring around the star, with a radius of 60
Astronomical Units (60 times the size of the Earth's orbit). The star
itself was not seen, because its small, hot surface radiates very
little at submillimetre wavelengths.
On the outskirts of the Solar System, there are vast numbers of comets
beyond the orbit of Pluto (40 Astronomical Units). These make up the
"Kuiper Belt". The sketch shows only a fraction of these comets, and
they are not to scale. The giant planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus
and Neptune (also not to scale) -- orbit inside this belt.
The location of the "belt" is remarkably similar in each picture.
Epsilon Eridani is much younger than the Sun, only about 0.5-1
billion years old while the Sun is 4.5 billion years old. It is
likely that that tiny dust particles around Eps Eri will gradually
accumulate into comets like those in the Solar System's Kuiper Belt.
There is one prominent bright peak in the ring around Eps Eri, seen
to the lower left of the star. This could be dust particles trapped
in an orbit close to a planet, or (less likely) the remnants of a
major comet collision. No-one yet knows if Epsilon Eridani has
planets ... but the new image gives a clue that there may be.
In fact, a very similar picture has emerged of dust orbiting near
the Earth. Dermott and co-workers made a simulation of dust trapped
in orbits near the Earth, and their computer simulation can be seen
here. [http://www.jach.hawaii.edu/News/kbelt/natpic.gif] It was
published in 1994, in the scientific journal Nature. There is a
striking similarity between their model for the Earth and our actual
image of epsilon Eridani!
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