Stunning Image of Planet Formation from ESO

Actual Image, Not an Artists Impression Image of HL Tauri Planetary Disc 350 Light Years Away / Credit ESO

Innerspace regularly highlights images from the European Southern Observatory, particularly on Fridays, when the simple beauty of the cosmos serves as a pleasant counterbalance to the often messy struggles of a species trying to find its way into space. That the images come, not from Hubble, or any space based telescope, but from the arid expanse and high altitude of Chile’s Atacama Desert is in its own way a reminder of what can be accomplished here on Earth.

All that being said, this time ESO has outdone itself, and this newly released image from the ALMA array which is only now being fully completed, promises many more wonders to come. If you’ve ever thought about the “dark sky” movement, here is an argument for clear air and black, black nights writ large.

ESO Top News Story:

For ALMA’s first observations in its new and most powerful mode, researchers pointed the antennas at HL Tauri — a young star, about 450 light-years away, which is surrounded by a dusty disc [1]. The resulting image exceeds all expectations and reveals unexpectedly fine detail in the disc of material left over from star birth. It shows a series of concentric bright rings, separated by gaps [2].

“These features are almost certainly the result of young planet-like bodies that are being formed in the disc. This is surprising since such young stars are not expected to have large planetary bodies capable of producing the structures we see in this image,” said Stuartt Corder, ALMA Deputy Director.

“When we first saw this image we were astounded at the spectacular level of detail. HL Tauri is no more than a million years old, yet already its disc appears to be full of forming planets. This one image alone will revolutionise theories of planet formation,” explained Catherine Vlahakis, ALMA Deputy Program Scientist and Lead Program Scientist for the ALMA Long Baseline Campaign.

HL Tauri’s disc appears much more developed than would be expected from the age of the system. Thus, the ALMA image also suggests that the planet-formation process may be faster than previously thought.

Such high resolution can only be achieved with the long baseline capabilities of ALMA and provides astronomers with new information that is impossible to collect with any other facility, even the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. “The logistics and infrastructure required to place antennas at such distant locations required an unprecedented coordinated effort by an expert international team of engineers and scientists,” said ALMA Director, Pierre Cox. “These long baselines fulfill one of ALMA’s major objectives and mark an impressive technological, scientific and engineering milestone.”

Young stars like HL Tauri are born in clouds of gas and fine dust, in regions which have collapsed under the effects of gravitation, forming dense hot cores that eventually ignite to become young stars. These young stars are initially cocooned in the remaining gas and dust, which eventually settles into a disc, known as a protoplanetary disc.

Through many collisions the dust particles will stick together, growing into clumps the size of sand grains and pebbles. Ultimately, asteroids, comets and even planets can form in the disc. Young planets will disrupt the disc and create rings, gaps and holes such as those seen in the structures now observed by ALMA [3].

The investigation of these protoplanetary discs is essential to our understanding of how Earth formed in the Solar System. Observing the first stages of planet formation around HL Tauri may show us how our own planetary system may have looked more than four billion years ago, when it formed.

“Most of what we know about planet formation today is based on theory. Images with this level of detail have up to now been relegated to computer simulations or artist’s impressions. This high resolution image of HL Tauri demonstrates what ALMA can achieve when it operates in its largest configuration and starts a new era in our exploration of the formation of stars and planets,” says Tim de Zeeuw, Director General of ESO.

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1 Comment on "Stunning Image of Planet Formation from ESO"

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  1. I totally agree on this image, it blew me away too. It’s rather sad that it’s so damn difficult to capture really good images in the near infrared, where ALMA now operates. I expect more stunning goodies to come.

    For what it’s worth, I count eight planets in three groups: two in the inner group, three in the middle, and three outer. Our solar system also has eight planets in three groups, but in a 4-2-2 arrangement. Perhaps the most interesting detail is that the planets seem much more evenly spaced that in our system. Here, planetary distances get wider the farther out you go. It makes me wonder if the distance arrangement was something that evolved over time?

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