Low-mass stars with extreme mid-infrared excesses: potential signatures of planetary collisions
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I investigate the occurrence of extreme mid-infrared (MIR) excesses, a tracer of large amounts of dust orbiting stars, in low-mass stellar systems. Extreme MIR excesses, defined as an excess IR luminosity greater than 1% of the stellar luminosity (L_IR/L∗ > 0.01), have previously only been observed around a small number of solar-mass (M⊙) stars. The origin of this excess has been hypothesized to be massive amounts of orbiting dust, created by collisions between terrestrial planets or large planetesimals. Until recently, there was a dearth of low-mass (M∗ < 0.6M⊙) stars exhibiting extreme MIR excesses, even though low-mass stars are ubiquitous (~70% of all stars), and known to host multiple terrestrial planets (~3 planets per star). I combine the spectroscopic sample of low-mass stars from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) Data Release 7 (70,841 stars) with MIR photometry from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), to locate stars exhibiting extreme MIR excesses. I find the occurrence frequency of low-mass field stars (stars with ages > 1 Gyr) exhibiting extreme MIR excesses is much larger than that for higher-mass field stars (0.41 ± 0.03% versus 0.00067 ± 0.00033%, respectively). In addition, I build a larger sample of low-mass stars based on stellar colors and proper motions using SDSS, WISE, and the Two-Micron All-Sky Survey (8,735,004 stars). I also build a galactic model to simulate stellar counts and kinematics to estimate the number of stars missing from my sample. I perform a larger, more complete study of low-mass stars exhibiting extreme MIR excesses, and find a lower occurrence frequency (0.020 ± 0.001%) than found in the spectroscopic sample but that is still orders of magnitude larger than that for higher-mass stars. I find a slight trend for redder stars (lower-mass stars) to exhibit a higher occurrence frequency of extreme MIR excesses, as well as a lower frequency with increased stellar age. Lastly, I use white dwarf and low-mass star binary systems to investigate if the frequency of planetary collisions (traced through extreme MIR excesses) are increased in these environments. I find that these binary systems are more likely to host collisional debris, and therefore exhibit increased excess MIR flux, over single stars. These samples probe important questions into the habitability of worlds discovered around low-mass stars.