UV Capabilities to Probe the Formation of Planetary Systems: From the ISM to Planets

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Abstract

Planetary systems are angular momentum reservoirs generated during star formation. Solutions to three of the most important problems in contemporary astrophysics are needed to understand the entire process of planetary system formation:

The physics of the ISM. Stars form from dense molecular clouds that contain ∼30% of the total interstellar medium (ISM) mass. The structure, properties and lifetimes of molecular clouds are determined by the overall dynamics and evolution of a very complex system — the ISM. Understanding the physics of the ISM is of prime importance not only for Galactic but also for extragalactic and cosmological studies. Most of the ISM volume (∼65%) is filled with diffuse gas at temperatures between 3000 and 300 000 K, representing about 50% of the ISM mass.

The physics of accretion and outflow. Powerful outflows are known to regulate angular momentum transport during star formation, the so-called accretion—outflow engine. Elementary physical considerations show that, to be efficient, the acceleration region for the outflows must be located close to the star (within 1AU) where the gravitational field is strong. According to recent numerical simulations, this is also the region where terrestrial planets could form after 1 Myr. One should keep in mind that today the only evidence for life in the Universe comes from a planet located in this inner disk region (at 1AU) from its parent star. The temperature of the accretion—outflow engine is between 3000 and 107 K. After 1 Myr, during the classical T Tauri stage, extinction is small and the engine becomes naked and can be observed at ultraviolet wavelengths.

The physics of planet formation. Observations of volatiles released by dust, planetesimals and comets provide an extremely powerful tool for determining the relative abundances of the vaporizing species and for studying the photochemical and physical processes acting in the inner parts of young planetary systems. This region is illuminated by the strong UV radiation field produced by the star and the accretion—outflow engine. Absorption spectroscopy provides the most sensitive tool for determining the properties of the circumstellar gas as well as the characteristics of the atmospheres of the inner planets transiting the stellar disk. UV radiation also pumps the electronic transitions of the most abundant molecules (H2, CO, etc.) that are observed in the UV.

Here we argue that access to the UV spectral range is essential for making progress in this field, since the resonance lines of the most abundant atoms and ions at temperatures between 3000 and 300 000 K, together with the electronic transitions of the most abundant molecules (H2, CO, OH, CS, S2, CO+ 2 , C2,O2,O3, etc.) are at UV wavelengths. A powerful UV-optical instrument would provide an efficient mean for measuring the abundance of ozone in the atmosphere of the thousands of transiting planets expected to be detected by the next space missions (GAIA, Corot, Kepler, etc.). Thus, a follow-up UV mission would be optimal for identifying Earth-like candidates.