“When exoplanet scientists first spotted patterns in disks of dust and gas around young stars, they thought newly formed planets might be the cause. But a recent NASA study cautions that there may be another explanation: one that doesn’t involve planets at all. An alternative explanation suggests the dust and gas in the disk can form the patterns themselves when they interact with starlight.
When high-energy UV starlight hits dust grains, it strips away electrons. Those electrons collide with and heat nearby gas. As the gas warms, its pressure increases and it traps more dust, which in turn heats more gas. The resulting cycle, called the photoelectric instability (PeI), can work in tandem with other forces to create some of the features astronomers have previously associated with planets in debris disks.
A 2013 study suggested PeI could explain the narrow rings seen in some disks. The model also predicted that some disks would have arcs, or incomplete rings, which weren’t directly observed in a disk until 2016. The new simulation includes an additional new factor: radiation pressure, a force caused by starlight striking dust grains. Light exerts a minute physical force on everything it encounters. This radiation pressure ...