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Using photometry at just two wavelengths it is possible to fit a blackbody to the spectrum of infrared excess that is the signature of a debris disc. From this the location of the dust can be inferred. However, it is well known that dust in debris discs is not a perfect blackbody. By resolving debris discs we can find the actual location of the dust and compare this to that inferred from the blackbody fit. Using the Herschel Space Observatory we resolved many systems as part of the DEBRIS survey. Here we discuss a sample of 9 discs surrounding A stars and find that the discs are actually located between 1 and 2.5 times further from their star than predicted by blackbody fits to the spectral energy distribution (SED). The variation in this ratio is due to differences in stellar luminosities, location of the dust, size distribution and composition of the dust.
Main sequence stars are commonly surrounded by disks of dust. From lifetime arguments, it is inferred that the dust particles are not primordial but originate from the collision of planetesimals, similar to the asteroids, comets and KBOs in our Solar system. The presence of these debris disks around stars with a wide range of masses, luminosities, and metallicities, with and without binary companions, is evidence that planetesimal formation is a robust process that can take place under a wide range of conditions. Debris disks can help us learn about the formation, evolution and diversity of planetary systems.
The science of extra-solar planets is one of the most rapidly changing areas of astrophysics and since 1995 the number of planets known has increased by almost two orders of magnitude. A combination of ground-based surveys and dedicated space missions has resulted in 560-plus planets being detected, and over 1200 that await confirmation. NASA's Kepler mission has opened up the possibility of discovering Earth-like planets in the habitable zone around some of the 100,000 stars it is surveying during its 3 to 4-year lifetime. The new ESA's Gaia mission is expected to discover thousands of new planets around stars within 200 parsecs of the Sun. The key challenge now is moving on from discovery, important though that remains, to characterisation: what are these planets actually like, and why are they as they are?
In the past ten years, we have learned how to obtain the first spectra of exoplanets using transit transmission and emission spectroscopy. With the high stability of Spitzer, Hubble, and large ground-based telescopes the spectra of bright close-in massive planets can be obtained and species like water vapour, methane, carbon monoxide and dioxide have been detected. With transit science came the first tangible remote sensing of these planetary bodies and so one can start to extrapolate from what has been learnt from Solar System probes to what one might plan to learn about their faraway siblings. As we learn more about the atmospheres, surfaces and near-surfaces of these remote bodies, we will begin to build up a clearer picture of their construction, history and suitability for life.
The Exoplanet Characterisation Observatory, EChO, will be the first dedicated mission to investigate the physics and chemistry of Exoplanetary Atmospheres. By characterising spectroscopically more bodies in different environments we will take detailed planetology out of the Solar System and into the Galaxy as a whole.
EChO has now been selected by the European Space Agency to be assessed as one of four M3 mission candidates.
The eccentric orbits of the known extrasolar giant planets provide evidence that most planet-forming environments undergo violent dynamical instabilities. Here, we numerically simulate the impact of giant planet instabilities on planetary systems as a whole. We find that populations of inner rocky and outer icy bodies are both shaped by the giant planet dynamics and are naturally correlated. Strong instabilities – those with very eccentric surviving giant planets – completely clear out their inner and outer regions. In contrast, systems with stable or low-mass giant planets form terrestrial planets in their inner regions and outer icy bodies produce dust that is observable as debris disks at mid-infrared wavelengths. Fifteen to twenty percent of old stars are observed to have bright debris disks (at λ ~ 70μm) and we predict that these signpost dynamically calm environments that should contain terrestrial planets.
This paper emphasizes the connection between solar and extra-solar debris disks: how models and observations of the Solar System are helping us understand the debris disk phenomenon, and vice versa, how debris disks are helping us place our Solar System into context.
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