disk_imageCollege of Charleston Astronomy Professor Joe Carson announced his third large discovery in the past year at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Long Beach, Cali. He and Christian Thalmann (University of Amsterdam) unveiled the first image of the newly discovered debris disk around the star HIP 79977.

Just last month, a team led by Carson announced the discovery of a new extrasolar planet. In February 2012, he (and collaborators) published observations on the previously announced exoplanet Fomalhaut b, which were featured in National Geographic, USA Today, and other prominent news sources. Both of those discoveries included College of Charleston undergraduates as co-authors.

Watch a video of Joe Carson.

“This is certainly an unusually high rate of high-profile discoveries,” Carson admits. “I suppose this is due to a few different factors: a lot of hard work over the last six years or so all paying off at once; being part of an exceptionally good team of researchers, including both my College of Charleston students as well as my external collaborators; benefiting from new advances in astronomy instrumentation; and a fair amount of luck.”

In this latest discovery, Carson and team used the Japanese Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawai`I to take the images. Debris disks are giant wheels of dust orbiting young stars, analogous to the Kuiper Belt in our own Solar System, and are thought to represent scattered material left over from recent planet formation. While many stars show evidence of the presence of such dust in the form of an infrared excess, only a handful of debris disks have been resolved in an image to date. The disk around HIP 79977 extends about ten times farther out into space than the Kuiper belt, and comprises a far greater amount of material. After subtracting the disk out of their image, the researchers are left with a tantalizing point-like signal — if confirmed in follow-up observations, it may well turn out to be one of the system’s newborn planets.

“My research comes into the classroom in many ways,” Carson explains. “It gives me chances to demonstrate to students how the physical concepts we study are directly connected to the latest research advances. Research also reminds me of the importance of teaching students how to approach problems for which there may not be an established solution.”

In November 2011, Carson also co-authored an investigation of a new view of the star SAO 206462 at NASA’s Signposts of Planets Conference.

For more information, contact Joe Carson at carsonj@cofc.edu.