Spectro-astrometry of the pre-transitional star LkCa 15 does not reveal an accreting planet but extended H alpha emission

I. Mendigutía, R. D. Oudmaijer, P. C. Schneider, N. Huélamo, D. Baines, S. D. Brittain and M. Aberasturi. 2018. Spectro-astrometry of the pre-transitional star LkCa 15 does not reveal an accreting planet but extended H alpha emission. Astronomy and Astrophysics 618, DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/201834233

The detection of forming planets in protoplanetary disks around young stars remains elusive, and state-of-the-art observational techniques provide somewhat ambiguous results. The pre-transitional T Tauri star LkCa 15 is an excellent example. It has been reported that it could host three planets; candidate planet b is in the process of formation, as inferred from its H alpha emission. However, a more recent work casts doubts on the planetary nature of the previous detections.

Aims. We test the potential of spectro-astrometry in H alpha as an alternative observational technique to detect forming planets around young stars, taking LkCa 15 as a reference case

Methods. LkCa 15 was observed with the ISIS spectrograph at the 4.2 m William Herschel Telescope (WHT). The slit was oriented towards the last reported position of LkCa 15 b (parallel direction) and 90 degrees from that (perpendicular). The photocenter and full width half maximum (FWHM) of the Gaussians fitting the spatial distribution at H alpha and the adjacent continuum were measured. A well-known binary (GU CMa) was used as a calibrator to test the spectro-astrometric performance of ISIS/WHT.

Results. A consistent spectro-astrometric signature is recovered for GU CMa. However, the photocenter shift predicted for LkCa 15 b is not detected, but the FWHM in H alpha is broader than in the continuum for both slit positions. Our simulations show that the photocenter and FWHM observations cannot be explained simultaneously by an accreting planet, but the lack of photocenter shift alone could still be consistent with an emitting planet with contrast greater than or similar to 5.5 mag in H alpha or greater than or similar to 6 mag in the adjacent continuum. In turn, both spectro-astrometric observations are naturally reproduced from a roughly symmetric H alpha emitting region centered on the star and extent comparable to the orbit originally attributed to the planet at several au.

Conclusions. The extended H alpha emission around LkCa 15 could be related to a variable disk wind, but additional multi-epoch data and detailed modeling are necessary to understand its physical nature. Optical spectro-astrometry carried out with mid-size telescopes is capable of probing small-scale structures in relatively faint young stars that are not easily accessible with state-of-the-art instrumentation mounted on larger telescopes. Therefore, spectro-astrometry in H alpha is able to test the presence of accreting planets and can be used as a complementary technique to survey planet formation in circumstellar disks.

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