18-month twinkle in a forming star suggests
 the existence of a very young planet

Discovery made possible by a leap in submillimetre radio astronomy technology,
 comparable to viewing videos instead of photos.

November 1, 2017 — An international team of researchers have found an infrequent variation in the brightness of a forming star. This 18-month recurring twinkle is not only an unexpected phenomenon for scientists, but its repeated behavior suggests the presence of a hidden planet.

This discovery is an early win for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) Transient Survey, just one-and-a-half years into its three-year mandate to monitor eight galactic stellar nurseries for variations in the brightness of forming stars. This novel study is critical to understanding how stars and planets are assembled. The survey is led by Doug Johnstone, Research Officer at the National Research Council of Canada and Greg Herczeg, Professor at Peking University (China), and is supported by an international team of astronomers from Canada, China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

“This variation in the brightness or twinkle of the star EC53 suggests that something large is disrupting the gravitational pull of the forming star. The fact that it recurs every 18 months suggests that this influence is orbiting around the star – it’s quite likely a hidden, forming planet,” says Doug Johnstone. It is thought that a companion planet is orbiting the star, and its passing gravitational pull disrupts the rate of the gas falling onto the forming star, providing a variation in the observed brightness, or light curve, of the star.


Young stars are born in regions of the galaxy where molecular gas is abundant. When the star is young, gas and dust form a thick cloud that surrounds the star. Some of this material quickly flattens into a disk, in which planets will form. The cloud blocks the star itself from optical view, so astronomers study the star indirectly by using the cloud to learn details about the star growing inside. The star builds up its mass as gravity attracts gas to move from the disk onto the star, a process that also releases significant energy that heats up the surrounding gas cloud. Astronomers use telescopes sensitive to sub-millimetre wavelengths, like the JCMT, to measure the cloud brightness and reveal details about the growth of the star.

EC53’s light curve anomaly was discovered by Hyunju Yoo, graduate student at Chungnam National University and advisor Jeong-Eun Lee, Professor at Kyung Hee University (South Korea), through careful analysis of monthly observations of Serpens Main, a stellar nursery known to contain many forming stars. Although the brightness of EC53 has been observed to vary periodically at near-infrared wavelengths for some time, these sub-millimetre observations were essential in validating that the brightness variation was due to heating from gas accreting onto the forming star, rather than variations in the cloudiness of the environment.

“What caught my eye was a new round of data that showed a sudden brightness that hadn’t existed in previous observations,” says Lee. “I knew that something unique and interesting must be happening around this forming star. It turned out that it is indeed a very special object, providing a new window into how stars and planets form.”

A deeper understanding of the formation of stars and planets

For the remainder of the three-year sub-millimetre survey, the team will continue to monitor EC53 and will also be searching for additional young stars showing variations in growth to learn more about how stars and planets assemble. There are already a half-dozen additional candidate variables within the survey. By studying these stars, and using additional telescope facilities such as the powerful Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the study will provide new and unique insight into the timescale for the formation of stars and planets, including whether planets form during or after the assembly of the star.

“This discovery marks a turning point; in a sense, it’s like sub-millimetre astronomy is moving from taking pictures of our galaxy to taking videos,” says Greg Herczeg. “The last 25 years have been devoted to perfecting observing techniques and instruments to allow us to see early star formation. But with recent advances in technology, we can now observe regions changing over time, for a deeper understanding of how stars form. This discovery is just one example of how much more we can now learn.”

Monitoring the brightness of forming stars over time using sub-millimetre wavelengths is an unconventional approach to observing that has been made possible by recent advances in imaging technology, like SCUBA-2, and data reduction processing which enables precise calibration and measurement.

The JCMT resides at the summit of Maunakea in Hawaii and is the largest single-dish sub- millimetre telescope in the world. The JCMT is operated by the East Asian Observatory, a partnership between China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, with support from the astronomy communities in Canada and the United Kingdom. The university-led contributions from Canada are supplemented by the NRC’s support for the JCMT archive at the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre.

This discovery has been accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal and is available online.

This story is distributed on behalf of: The National Research Council of Canada, Peking University and Kyung Hee University.


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The Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (KIAA)
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Shuyan Liu

Kyung Hee University
Min-Jae Jung
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James Clerk Maxwell Telescope
Steve Mairs

Upcoming IAU


The largest gathering of astronomers from around the world will be happening this August in Hawaii!  The International Astronomical Union will assemble at the Honolulu Convention Center for six symposia and 22 focus meetings that will cover everything from the “Search for Water and Life’s Building Blocks in the Universe” to “Advances in Stellar Physics from Asteroseismology” and everything in between.  Of course we will be there!  For more information visit the event website at http://astronomy2015.org/

Save the Date: AstroDay

astrodayAstroDay is one of the most engaging outreach events on the Big Island and fun for the whole family!  Come on down to the Prince Kuhio Plaza in Hilo, Hawaii on Saturday, May 2nd from 10am – 4pm for a celebration of Astronomy and Hawaiian Culture.  The mall will be packed with exciting exhibits and interactive displays, live music and performances on a main stage, plus tons of free handouts and chances to win cool prizes.  We hope to see you there!

Successful “Journey”


Telescope System Specialist, Callie Matulonis, visiting Mrs. Thatcher’s 5th grade class at Connections Elementary School. Photo Credit: Pam Thatcher

The Journey Through the Universe program is always an enormous success in Hawaii, and this year was no different.  Over the past 11 years, scientists, astronomers, and engineers have engaged over 50,000 students while visiting over 3,000 classrooms on the Big Island during the annual “Journey” week.  This March, several EAO staff presented exciting information and activities to over 100 students in grades 5-8 in the Hilo-Waikea Complex.  For more information on Journey Through the Universe visit http://www.gemini.edu/journey.

Upcoming “Journey”

Journey Through the Universe

Journey Through the Universe is February 27th – March 6th! A nationally recognized week long event in which astronomers visit local classrooms around the island while sharing their passion for physics and astronomy.  Several EAO staff members will be representing the JCMT and hoping to inspire a future generation of scientists!  Visit the Journey Through the Universe website for a complete listing of upcoming local events associated with Journey.