Astronomers working with the Hubble Space Telescope have released the most detailed picture ever taken of a circumstellar debris disk viewed edge-on. It's the only picture we have of a protoplanetary disk with an actual planet orbiting within it.

Beta Pictoris is a 20-million-year old system located about 63 light-years from Earth. This star is in the main sequence stage of its evolution, surrounded by a disk of gas and dust that's slowly congealing into planets.

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It also hosts a planet, called Beta Pictoris b, that features a mass between four and 11 Jupiter masses. Because the orbital period is so short — somewhere between 18 and 22 years — astronomers can track large changes in just a few years. Astronomers can thus study how the disk is being distorted by the planet, which is embedded within the protoplanetary disk.

When comparing the image taken back in 1997, it's clear that little has changed in the disk dust distribution. This is surprising given that the entire structure is orbiting the star like a carousel. This suggests the disk's structure is smooth and continuous in the direction on the timescale of the planet's orbital period.

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By the way, that black blotch in the center is what's called a coronagraph, which removes the glare of the central star so that the disk can be seen.

Much more at the Hubble Space Telescope news site.

Images: NASA, ESA, and D. Apai and G. Schneider (University of Arizona).