Astronomers have been able to capture what the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) calls the “best image ever of planet formation around an infant star.” The image was taken by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in Chile. Understanding the planet formation around infant stars is important because it will help us understand the origins of our own planet.
Planet are formed in a ‘protoplanetary disc’
Stars form when dust and gas are crushed together by gravity. The remaining particles gather around the infant star and form concentric disks. Over time, these leftover particles form rocks, asteroids and even planets. The image shows a giant disc of gas and dust, with dark rings clearly visible. The rings indicate brand new planets in orbit. As the star evolves, they will cool and settle, yielding more individual objects, just like the ones in our own solar system.
This image is of a star called HL Tau, which is no more than a million years old. The infant star is located in the constellation Taurus, about 450 light years from the Earth. Planet formation process takes place with a huge dust cloud around it. So, it’s pretty difficult to observe it using visible light. But ALMA’s high-resolution capability made it possible.
Planet formation happening faster than expected
ALMA was upgraded in September to capture such high-quality images. Until now, scientists have relied on artistic renderings, computer simulations or fuzzy blobs to study planet formation. The University of Oxford astrophysicist Dr Aprajita Verma described the ALMA image as “phenomenal.” Dr Verma said she would normally expect to see a “smooth disc.”
But the image shows multiple rings, along with where it is darker. Dr Verma said the planet formation process is happening faster than what scientists would have predicted using existing data. ALMA is going to be an “incredible instrument.” The telescope isn’t yet running at its maximum resolution.