I study different aspects of the debris disk phenomenon and transport and radial mixing in circumstellar disks, both in the Solar system and in extrasolar planetary systems, using radiative transfer and dynamical models and observations. My interests include the statistical properties of the disks as derived from debris disk surveys (e.g. frequency, dust temperature/location, temporal evolution, debris disk-planet correlation), the study of individual systems, the search for planets in protoplanetary and debris disks via direct detection, and the exchange of debris between our solar system and other planetary system. All these studies help us place our Solar system into context.


Why we care?



Planetesimal belts might be ubiquitous

Mid- and far-infrared observations with the Spitzer (3.6–160 μm) and Herschel space telescopes (70–500 μm) indicate that at least 10–25% of stars of age 10 million years to 10,000 million years harbor planetesimal disks of sizes 10s to 100s of AU (i.e. comparable or a few times larger than the Solar system). We know this because these stars are brighter than expected at infrared wavelengths, indicating that they are surrounded by dust disks. Because these stars are mature, the observed dust cannot be primordial (i.e. belonging to the protoplanetary disk that gave birth to the star) but is likely generated steadily or stochastically by collisions or sublimation of planetesimals.

Most likely the fraction of stars harboring these dust disks (a.k.a. debris didks) is even higher, but they are too faint to be detected by current instrumentation. We find evidence for planetesimals around stars with a wide range of masses and luminosities. This implies that planetesimal formation, the first step of planet formation, is a robust process and can take place under a wide range of conditions.


The sun also harbors a debris disk, produced by the asteroids, comets, and Kuiper Belt objects, with a production rate of dust that has changed significantly with time, having been higher in the past, when the solar system was less than 700 million years old. At those earlier times, the asteroid and Kuiper belts were more densely populated; they were depleted heavily when the giant planets migrated from their formation location to their current orbits. Today, the solar system’s debris disk is fainter than the faintest extrasolar debris disks we can observe with the Herschel space telescope. Even tough we cannot yet observe debris disks as faint as that of the solar system, extrapolating from current observations there is evidence that the solar system might be average in terms of its dust content.

Herschel detects emission from cold dust at 10s of AU from the stars with excess emission at 100 μm. But this dust can been transported inward by Poynting-Robertson drag (resulting from the interaction of the dust particles with the stellar photons). One of the reasons why we are interested in this dust closer to the star is because it poses an observational issue for direct planet detection, due to the background noise and confusion it may introduce. The results above are good news because the implied low level of dust at a few AU would not measurably reduce the expected performance of a large ATLAST-type optical space telescope (around 12 m in diameter), designed to detect and characterize exoplanets. Note, however, that comets and asteroids located closer to the star are also sources of dust. For those sources, the long-wavelength observations by the Herschel space telescope do not provide constraints. Nevertheless, lower emission from Kuiper Belt-type dust likely implies less populated outer belts, which could reduce cometary activity.

Adapted from an article that appeared in the Space Telescope Science Institute Newsletter (Winter 2015), based on results published in Moro-Martín, A., Marshall, J. P., Kennedy, G., et al. 2015, ApJ, in press (arXiv:1501.03813)



Another link between debris and the search for life is the exchange of solid material (debris) between young planetary systems, which may be more efficient than previously assumed. Having only one example of a habitable planet, there is little certainty regarding the frequency and timescale of abiogenesis once the conditions for life are met. Life could arise in situ, or it could be transferred from somewhere else. The exchange of meteoroids between the terrestrial planets in our solar system is a well-established phenomenon. The identification of a handful of meteorites on the moon and Mars has given rise to the concept of lithopanspermia: the transfer of life from one planet to another via the exchange of meteoroids. Nevertheless, the idea of lithopanspermia between different planetary systems—as opposed to between planets in the same system—has had a serious problem: extremely low transfer probabilities.


Until Now

Encouraged by the high frequency of planetesimals around solar-type stars, we revisited the issue of the transfer of debris between young nearby planetary systems still embedded in their birth stellar cluster. We found that the transfer probabilities are greatly increased when considering quasi-parabolic, chaotic orbits. The figure to the right (from Belbruno et al. 2012) shows a few examples of the million Monte Carlo realizations carried out, showing the chaotic trajectory of a meteoroid that is successfully transferred between two stellar neighbors (in red), and others that are not transferred (dotted black lines).

Timescales are critical

For lithopanspermia to be a viable hypothesis, we not only need an efficient transfer mechanism (discussed above), but we also need life to have developed on Earth before the cluster dispersed (after which the transfer probabilities would become too low). Is there evidence that this could have been the case? From the isotopic ratio of oxygen found in zircons, there are indications that liquid water was present in the crust of the Earth when the solar system was as young as 164 or 288 million years old, depending on the study, which indicates that habitable conditions might have been present early on. Other studies show that the isotopic ratio of carbon in old sedimentary rocks indicates evidence of biological activity when the solar system was only 718 million years old. The timescales for abiogenesis (the natural process of life arising from non-living matter) are thought to range from 0.1–1 million years for hydrothermal conditions at the deep sea, to 0.3–3 million years for warm-puddle conditions in shallow water, to 1–10 million years for subaeric conditions in the soil—all at least an order of magnitude less than the lifetime of the stellar cluster. If life arose on Earth shortly after liquid water was available on its crust, the window of opportunity for life-bearing rocks to be transferred to another planetary system in the cluster opens when liquid water was available (when the Solar system was 164–288 million years old), and ends by the cluster dispersal time (when the Solar system was 135–535 million years old; see bottom and top timelines in the figure below).

Not only there is this window of opportunity, but there is evidence that heavy bombardment ejected large quantities of possibly life-bearing rocks from Earth, ejecting them to outer space. This bombardment period lasted from the end of the planet–accretion phase until the end of the late heavy bombardment 3800 million years ago, when the solar system was approximately 770 million old. The bombardment is also evidence that planetesimals were being cleared from the solar system several hundred million years after planet formation. This period of massive bombardment and planetesimal ejection from the Solar system completely encompassed the “window of opportunity” for the transfer of life-bearing rocks, providing a viable ejection mechanism for lithopanspermia (see middle timeline in the figure above).

But there is one final consideration to assess if lithopanspermia could be viable: Is the time for survival of microorganisms in deep space longer than the characteristic transfer timescale? In other words, could microorganisms surive long interstellar journey? Microorganisms can be sheltered from the hazards of outer space (ultraviolet light, x-rays and cosmic rays) if hidden below the surface of the rocks. Survival for millions of years cannot be tested with direct experiments (e.g., experiments testing the survival on the surface of the Moon lasted only a few years), but there are computer simulations that model the conditions in outer space for extended periods of time. Based on these studies and comparing to the timescales involved in the weak-transfer mechanisms, including the time it might take to land on a terrestrial planet, we found that microorganisms could survive the long interstellar journey hidden in meteoroids larger than about one meter.

All the considerations above indicate that it is therefore possible that life on Earth could have been transferred to other planetary systems when the Sun was still embedded in its stellar birth cluster. But could life on Earth have originated beyond the boundaries of our solar system? Our results indicate that, from the point of view of dynamical transport efficiency, life-bearing extrasolar planetesimals could have been delivered to the solar system if life had a sufficiently early start in other planetary systems, before the solar maternal cluster dispersed. An early microbial biosphere, if it existed, would likely have survived the Late Heavy Bombardment. Thus, both possibilities remain open: that life was “seeded” on Earth by extrasolar planetesimals, or that terrestrial life was transported to other star systems via dynamical transport of meteorites. Regarding the search for life beyond our solar system, this opens a new world of possibilities to dream about, given how many extra-solar planetary systems are out there and how tremendously diverse they are.

Adapted from an article that appeared in the Space Telescope Science Institute Newsletter (Winter 2015), based on results published in Belbruno, E., Moro-Martín, A., Malhotra, R., & Savransky, D. 2012, Astrobiology 12, 754


The study of the planet-debris disk connection can shed light on the formation and evolution of planetary systems and may help “predict” the presence of planets around stars with certain disk characteristics.

In preliminary analyses of subsamples of the Herschel DEBRIS and DUNES surveys, Wyatt et al. (2012) and Marshall et al. (2014) identified a tentative correlation between debris and the presence of low-mass planets. Here we use the cleanest possible sample out of these Herschel surveys to assess the presence of such a correlation, discarding stars without known ages, with ages < 1 Gyr and with binary companions <100 AU to rule out possible correlations due to effects other than planet presence. In our resulting subsample of 204 FGK stars, we do not find evidence that debris disks are more common or more dusty around stars harboring high-mass or low-mass planets compared to a control sample without identified planets. There is no evidence either that the characteristic dust temperature of the debris disks around planet-bearing stars is any different from that in debris disks without identified planets, nor that debris disks are more or less common (or more or less dusty) around stars harboring multiple planets compared to single-planet systems.

Diverse dynamical histories may account for the lack of correlations. The data show a correlation between the presence of high-mass planets and stellar metallicity, but no correlation between the presence of low-mass planets or debris and stellar metallicity. Comparing the observed cumulative distribution of fractional luminosity to those expected from a Gaussian distribution in logarithmic scale, we find that a distribution centered on the Solar system’s value fits the data well, while one centered at 10 times this value can be rejected. This is of interest in the context of future terrestrial planet detection and characterization because it indicates that there are good prospects for finding a large number of debris disk systems (i.e. with evidence of harboring planetesimals, the building blocks of planets) with exozodiacal emission low enough to be appropriate targets for an ATLAST-type mission to search for biosignatures.


Amaya Moro-Martín pasa sus días estudiando polvo interestelar en busca de otros planetas. Esta investigadora española conversó con Scientific American sobre su campo de estudio y sobre el dilema de decidir entre financiar una misión humana a Marte o un telescopio que busque vida extraterrestre.