When viewed in optical starlight scattered by dust, the nearly edge-on debris disk surrounding the A5V star β Pictoris (distance 19.3 pc; ref. 1) extends farther than 1,450 au from the star2. Its large-scale complexity has been well characterized, but the detailed structure of the disk's central ∼200-au region has remained elusive. This region is of special interest, because planets may have formed there during the star's 10–20-million-year lifetime3,4, perhaps resulting in both the observed tilt of 4.6 degrees relative to the large-scale main disk5,6 and the partial clearing of the innermost dust7,8,9. A peculiarity of the central disk (also possibly related to the presence of planets) is the asymmetry in the brightness of the ‘wings’9,10, in which the southwestern wing is brighter and more extended at 12 µm than the northeastern wing. Here we present thermal infrared images of the central disk that imply that the brightness asymmetry results from the presence of a bright clump composed of particles that may differ in size from dust elsewhere in the disk. We suggest that this clump results from the collisional grinding of resonantly trapped planetesimals or the cataclysmic break-up of a planetesimal.
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We dedicate this paper to the memory of our colleague F. Gillett, infrared astronomy pioneer and co-discoverer of circumstellar debris disks. We thank K. Hanna, J. Julian and R. Piña for contributions to the success of T-ReCS; F. Varosi for assistance with data reduction; the Gemini Observatory staff in Chile, particularly M.-C. Hainaut-Rouelle, for technical assistance; and D. Simons of Gemini Observatory for support. This paper is based on observations (programme number GS-2003B-14) obtained at the Gemini Observatory, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., under a cooperative agreement with the NSF on behalf of the Gemini partnership: the National Science Foundation (United States), the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (United Kingdom), the National Research Council (Canada), CONICYT (Chile), the Australian Research Council (Australia), CNPq (Brazil) and CONICET (Argentina). This research was funded in part by an NSF grant to C.M.T.
The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.
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Telesco, C., Fisher, R., Wyatt, M. et al. Mid-infrared images of β Pictoris and the possible role of planetesimal collisions in the central disk. Nature 433, 133–136 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature03255
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