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Our New Paper is Out!

Good news, everyone: our latest paper from Disk Detective has just been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal! You can read it on the arXiv now. In it, we estimate the number of disks we expect to find in Disk Detective, and present over two hundred new disk candidates that have received high-resolution follow-up imaging.

Disk Detective is designed to identify new disk candidates in the AllWISE catalog by eliminating false positives. Because we have such a large catalog and so many classifications that have been made so far (keep them coming!), we can get some statistics on how many objects are false positives, and use that to estimate the number of disks we expect to find. We can also break this down by what kind of false positive we find, and where in the galaxy we find it.


Objects as a function of Galactic latitude. Most objects are in the Galactic plane, and most of those objects are multiples.

In general, “multiples,” objects for which a majority of classifiers clicked “Multiple objects in the Red Circle,” are the most common type of object–more than 70% of the objects in the catalog! Only about 8% of objects are classified as “None of the Above/Good candidate” by a majority of classifiers. These occur most often in the Galactic plane, as you’d expect–if there’s more stars in the Galactic plane, you’d expect to get more disk candidates there. However, multiples become much more common in the Galactic plane, as well–the multiple fraction in the Galactic plane is over 70%!

We looked to see the multiple fraction (the fraction of objects in a given range that were multiples) as a function of Galactic latitude. We expected that these would be most common in the Galactic plane, and fall off as you got further away from it. We found instead that while for the most part this is the case, there’s an additional peak between -30 and -35 degrees Galactic latitude.

So we looked at the multiple fraction as a function of both Galactic latitude and longitude, as shown on this heatmap (brighter = higher multiple fraction), and found that most of those multiples outside the Galactic plane occurred at the same Galactic latitude as the Large Magellanic Cloud–we have multiples caused by stars in nearby dwarf galaxies, too.

In addition to the website classifications, we also review our objects in the literature to ensure that we’re not identifying things that are known to be non-disk sources (like background galaxies). This eliminates an additional 14% of our objects, the remainder of which becomes DDOIs.


Objects with high-resolution follow-up as a function of Galactic latitude. Unlike with the website classification data, there’s no significant difference between in and out of the Galactic plane.

We took high-resolution images of 261 of our DDOIs to see if we could identify faint background objects, fainter than would be detectable in our survey data but bright enough to produce a false positive at W4, using the Robo-AO instrument while it was at Palomar, and RetroCam on the Irenee R. Dupont telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. (I wrote about my observing experience at LCO here.) We included some volunteers from our advanced user team in the analysis of this data–they’ll have a blog post up on the details of what they did soon. Overall, we found that 244 of the 261 objects were good disk candidates once faint background objects were taken into account.

Combining all of these, we estimate that only 7.9% of all infrared excess candidates in AllWISE are or will be good disk candidates. That means that we expect to find 21,600 disks in AllWISE, almost double our original estimate!


Estimated false positive fraction for several surveys. Surveys that visually inspect the data (blue) have lower expected false positive rates than surveys that don’t (orange).

We were able to use our false positive rates to estimate how many false positives appear in published disk searches. Many surveys do a good job, but have some false positives due to objects only detectable in high-resolution imaging. Some larger searches, however, seems to be riddled with false positives, including the McDonald et al. (2014) and (2017) searches, and the Marton et al. (2016) search. These searches don’t include a visual inspection of the images, and thus are likely to have high rates of false positives due to multiples at the minimum.

We were also able to leverage the knowledge base of our Disk Detectives to analyze the M dwarf disk candidates of Theissen & West (2014). M dwarf disks are key targets, because very few have been found, despite the abundance of M dwarfs nearby. The advanced user team got together and found a way to analyze the targets as if they were Disk Detective objects (more on this in their blog post coming soon). We found that only 13 of the candidates from Theissen & West (2014) had high enough signal-to-noise for the Disk Detective methodology to apply. Advanced users found flaws with all thirteen, making all of them false positives.


An HR diagram of our candidates with parallaxes from Gaia. Color of each point indicates the disk temperature, while size of each point indicates the strength of the infrared excess. This plot shows that while most of our objects lie on the main sequence (like our Sun does), many others lie off of it. We think that most of the ones off the main sequence are primordial disks.

Finally, we presented a list of 244 disk candidates with follow-up high-resolution imaging, 213 of which are new discoveries by Disk Detective. These seem to be split evenly among debris and YSO disks, though some of those YSO disks could potentially be “extreme” debris disks, which are thought to result from collisions of terrestrial planets. We made some further interesting discoveries among these:


  • We found that twelve of our new disks were in comoving pairs (that is, another star nearby to them has similar motion), providing further support to the hypothesis that warm circumstellar dust is associated with binary systems.
  • We made the first identification of 22-micron excess around two stars that are known to be in the Scorpius-Centaurus young association, and identified known disk host WISEA J164540.79-310226.6 as a likely member of Sco-Cen, based on its motion through the sky. By identifying these targets as members of Sco-Cen, we give them likely ages, letting us put these on timelines of disk evolution.
  • We found thirty-one disk candidates within 125 pc, including 27 debris disks. These are good targets for both direct imaging exoplanet searches, and spatially resolving the disk itself in scattered light–making these targets optimal for observation with the James Webb Space Telescope.


And there’s still more work to be done! We recently hit 76% complete (that is, 76% of all our targets have enough classifications to be retired from the website), but that leaves more than 60,000 excesses to evaluate with your help. We now know how many objects we’re going to find–now it’s our job to finish finding them.