Clearest Ever Photo of Planet Formation!
The ALMA telescopes have struck again – this time giving us the clearest ever picture of new planets forming around a star. And what make this image even more exciting is that the star is so young that it changes what we know about the formation of solar systems!
As you can see from the picture below, dark rings are visible around the star at the centre. These rings are gaps in a vast cloud of dust and gas, which, according to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) are created as newly formed planets clear their orbits.
ALMA – Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array – is made up of 20 telescopes in the Chilean desert that stand at an impressive 39ft/12m tall. These telescopes were able to take the impressive new picture because of new high-resolution capabilities.
This means that ALMA is able to detect longer wavelengths than it normally does. The image was captured by turning radio signals that measure electromagnetic radiation into digital signals using multiple antennae. These signals are then translated into a visual representation.
The high-res capabilities have only been in operation since September, and ALMA scientists wanted to test them out. So they pointed the antennae at a star, HL Tau, which is around 450 light years from Earth in the constellation known as Taurus.
The scientists found that they were able to view the star is more detail than ever before. But they were expecting HL Tau to have a smooth disc – the “glow” radiating out from the planet – with little to no disruption. What they actually found was that the star is currently engaged in the process of planet formation.
“When we first saw this image, we were astounded at the spectacular level of detail,” explained ALMA deputy programme scientists Dr Catherine Vlahakis. “HL Tau is no more than a million years old, yet already its disc appears to be full of forming planets.”
Up until now, most of what we know about when planets form has been based on theory. Anything with the detail that this new image has displayed has been confined to an artist’s impression or a computer simulation.
While researchers have been proven somewhat correct in their assessments, everyone seems surprised that a star of HL Tau’s young age could be capable of pulling together its own solar system.
In a press release, ALMA Deputy Director Dr Stuartt Corder explains just this, that young stars are not expected to have large planet-like structures the likes of which can be seen in the image. But: “These features are almost certainly the result of young planet-like bodies that are being formed in the disc,” he said.
The whole process is happening at a rate that is much faster than any of the scientists predicted from previous data. More than anything else, the scientists know the kind of incredible detail that the ALMA telescopes are capable of capturing which could lead to learning more about our own solar system and the forming of it.
Commenting on the finding, Dr Aprajita Verma from the University of Oxford in England described the picture as phenomenal. “This shows how exciting ALMA is going to be,” she said. “It is going to be an incredible instrument!”