Most stars may have much more time to form planets than previously thought

By | October 21, 2022

Good news for late bloomers: Planets may have millions of years more time to arise around most stars than previously thought.

Planet-making disks around young stars typically last for 5 million to 10 million years, researchers report in a study posted October 6 at arXiv.org. That disk lifetime, based on a survey of nearby young star clusters, is a good deal longer than the previous estimate of 1 million to 3 million years.

“One to three megayears is a really strong constraint for forming planets,” says astrophysicist Susanne Pfalzner of Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany. “Finding that we have a lot of time just relaxes everything” for building planets around young stars.

Planets large and small develop in the disks of gas and dust that swirl around young stars (SN: 5/20/20). Once a disk vanishes, it’s too late to make any more new worlds.

Past studies have estimated disk lifetimes by looking at the fraction of young stars of different ages that still have disks — in particular, by observing star clusters with known ages. But Pfalzner and her colleagues discovered something odd: The farther a star cluster is from Earth, the shorter the estimated disk lifetime. That made no sense, she says, because why should the lifetime of a protoplanetary disk depend on how far it is from us?

The answer is quite simple: It doesn’t. But in clusters that are farther away, it’s harder to see most stars. “When you look at larger distances, you see higher-mass stars,” Pfalzner says, because those stars are brighter and easier to see. “You basically don’t see the low-mass stars.” But the lowest-mass stars constitute the vast majority. These stars, orange and red dwarfs, are cooler, smaller and fainter than the sun.

So Pfalzner and her colleagues examined only the nearest young star clusters, those within 650 light-years of Earth, and found that the fraction of stars with planet-making disks was much higher than that reported in previous studies. This analysis showed that “the low-mass stars have much longer disk lifetimes, between 5 and 10 megayears,” than astronomers realized, she says. In contrast, disks around higher-mass stars are known to disperse faster than this, perhaps because their suns’ brighter light pushes the gas and dust away more quickly.

“I wouldn’t say that this is definite proof” for such long disk lifetimes around orange and red dwarfs, says Álvaro Ribas, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge who was not involved with the work. “But it’s quite convincing.”

To bolster the result, he’d like to see observations of more distant star clusters — perhaps with the James Webb Space Telescope — to determine the fraction of the faintest stars that have preserved their planet-making disks between 5 million and 20 million years (SN: 10/11/22).

If the disks around the lowest mass stars do indeed have long lifetimes, that may explain a difference between our solar system and those of most red dwarfs, Pfalzner says. The latter often lack gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, which are about 10 times the diameter of Earth. Instead, those stars frequently have numerous ice giants like Uranus and Neptune, about four times the diameter of Earth. Perhaps Neptune-sized planets arise in larger numbers when a planet-making disk lasts longer, Pfalzner says, accounting for why these worlds tend to abound around smaller stars.