Beta Pictoris

artist's impression of a collision between asteroids in one of the dust rings that surrounds Beta Pictoris

A collision between asteroids as they orbit Beta Pictoris. Observations have pinpointed three dusty belts orbiting this star, along with a possible planet. Image credit: ISAS/JAXA.

Beta Pictoris is a relatively nearby star, lying in the constellation Pictor, that is surrounded by several large dust rings, seen almost edge-on. Evidence for a dusty circumstellar disk lying outside an inner clear zone around Beta Pictoris was first revealed in 1983 by the Infrared Astronomy Satellite. The material in the disk was found to have a temperature of about -173°C (-279°F, or 100 K) and to extend up to 600 astronomical units (90 billion km, or 56 billion miles) from the star. An image of the disk was obtained in 1984 by Richard Terrile and Bradford Smith using the 2.5-meter telescope at Las Campanas Observatory equipped with a charge-coupled device and a coronograph.


Speculation followed about whether it might be a protoplanetary disk, similar to the solar system before the planets formed. However, this is almost certainly not the case since Beta Pictoris is a main sequence star with an age of less than 20 million years. The dust presently in its disk has a life-time of the order of 100,000 years, and must therefore undergo continuous replenishment (see regenerated disk). Although the disk is unlikely to be the site of planet formation today, it may be that existing planets move within it.1 Support for this idea came with the observation of a gap in the disk, between a radius of 10 and 30 AU (1.5 billion and 4.5 billion kilometers). It has been suggested that the dust-free region may have been cleared by a planet of about 5 Earth-masses moving in a near-circular orbit 20 AU (3 billion kilometers) out from the central star.2, 3 Spectral analysis has revealed red-shifted absorption features which some believe are due to comets falling onto the star's outer atmosphere.4 If this is the case, it is again consistent with the presence of a planetary system since one or more gas giants might be responsible for the infall events.


In 1996, using the Hubble Space Telescope, a small warp was detected in the disk within 80 AU (12 billion kilometers) which, according to one theory, is due to the gravitational influence of a massive planet orbiting at right angles to the disk. In January 1998, came the announcement of a larger warp further out in the disk, some 11 billion kilometers (7 billion miles) from the star. This might be due to a brown dwarf in a wide orbit around Beta Pictoris or the nearby passage of another star.


visual magnitude 3.85
absolute magnitude 2.42
spectral type A5V
distance 62.9 light-years 19.3 pc)
position R.A. 05h 47m 17.1s,
Dec. -51° 03' 59"
other designations GJ 219.0, HR 2020, CD -51°1620,
HD 39060, GCTP 1339.00,
SAO 234134, HIP 27321