The researchers found that, relative to their total energy output, the more massive stars in the first group produce more X-rays than the less massive ones in the second. To find out how common planet-forming disks in the groups were, the team used data from NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and, in some cases, ground-based spectroscopy previously obtained by other teams. They found that all of the stars in the more massive group had already lost their planet-forming disks, but only about half of the stars in the less massive group had lost their disks. This suggests that X-rays from the more massive stars are speeding up the disappearance of their disks, by heating disk material and causing it to “evaporate” into deep space.
In previous studies, astronomers found that 10-million-year-old stars in the Upper Scorpius region, another star-forming group, displayed a similar trend of an increase in the lifetime of disks for lower mass stars. However, the Upper Scorpius work did not incorporate X-ray data that might offer an explanation for this trend, which is one reason why this new study of the 8 million-year-old TWA is important. Another reason is that theoretical models of the evolution of planet-forming disks generally predict that the lifetimes of disks should have very little dependence on the mass of the star. The new results for the “puny” TWA stars point to the need to revisit disk evolution models to account for the range in the X-ray outputs of very low-mass stars.
In searching for planets outside of our solar system, many astronomers have focused their efforts on observing stars less massive than the sun, like those described here. Such stars may offer some of the best targets for direct imaging of exoplanets in the so-called habitable zone, the star-to-planet distance range where liquid water could exist and life may eventually flourish. These low mass stars are also attractive targets because they are relatively faint and planets in their habitable zones should be easier to detect and investigate.
These results appear in The Astronomical Journal. The authors of this paper are Joel Kastner from RIT; RIT alumnus David Principe ’14 (astrophysical sciences and technology), now at Universidad Diego Portales; Chile; Kristina Punzi, Ph.D. student at RIT; Beate Stelzer at INAF Palermo, Italy; Uma Gorti at SETI Institute; Ilaria Pascucci at University of Arizona; and Costanza Argiroffi at INAF.
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra's science and flight operations.