Birth of planets revealed in astonishing detail in ALMA's 'best image ever'

November 6, 2014
ALMA image of the young star HL Tau and its protoplanetary disk. This best image ever of planet formation reveals multiple rings and gaps that herald the presence of emerging planets as they sweep their orbits clear of dust and gas Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

Astronomers have captured the best image ever of planet formation around an infant star as part of the testing and verification process for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array's (ALMA) new high-resolution capabilities.

This revolutionary new image reveals in astonishing detail the planet-forming disk surrounding HL Tau, a Sun-like star located approximately 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus.

ALMA uncovered never-before-seen features in this system, including multiple concentric rings separated by clearly defined gaps. These structures suggest that is already well underway around this remarkably young star.

"These features are almost certainly the result of young planet-like bodies that are being formed in the disk. This is surprising since HL Tau is no more than a million years old and such young stars are not expected to have large capable of producing the structures we see in this image," said ALMA Deputy Director Stuartt Corder.

All stars are believed to form within clouds of gas and dust that collapse under gravity. Over time, the surrounding dust particles stick together, growing into sand, pebbles, and larger-size rocks, which eventually settle into a thin protoplanetary disk where asteroids, comets, and planets form.

An artist's impression of a protoplanetary disk. Newly formed planets can be seen traveling around the central host star, sweeping their orbits clear of dust and gas. These same ring-link structures were observed recently by ALMA around the young star HL Tau. Credit: Credit: National Science Foundation, A. Khan

Once these planetary bodies acquire enough mass, they dramatically reshape the structure of their natal disk, fashioning rings and gaps as the planets sweep their orbits clear of debris and shepherd dust and gas into tighter and more confined zones.

The new ALMA image reveals these striking features in exquisite detail, providing the clearest picture to date of planet formation. Images with this level of detail were previously only seen in computer models and artist concepts. ALMA, living up to its promise, has now provided direct proof that nature and theory are very much in agreement.

"This new and unexpected result provides an incredible view of the process of planet formation. Such clarity is essential to understand how our own Solar System came to be and how planets form throughout the Universe," said Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Virginia, which manages ALMA operations for astronomers in North America.

HL Tau is hidden in visible light behind a massive envelope of dust and gas. Since ALMA observes at much longer wavelengths, it is able to peer through the intervening dust to study the processes right at the core of this cloud. "This is truly one of the most remarkable images ever seen at these wavelengths. The level of detail is so exquisite that it's even more impressive than many optical images. The fact that we can see planets being born will help us understand not only how planets form around other stars but also the origin of our own Solar System," said NRAO astronomer Crystal Brogan.

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This is an artist's animation of a protoplanetary disk. Newly formed planets can be seen traveling around the central host star, sweeping their orbits clear of dust and gas. These same ring-link structures were observed recently by ALMA around the young star HL Tau. Credit: National Science Foundation, A. Khan

ALMA's new high-resolution capabilities were achieved by spacing the antennas up to 15 kilometers apart. This baseline at millimeter wavelengths enabled a resolution of 35 milliarcseconds, which is equivalent to a penny as seen from more than 110 kilometers away.

"Such a 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, including the best optical observatories," noted ALMA Director Pierre Cox.

These long baselines fulfill one of ALMA's major objectives and mark an impressive technological and engineering milestone. Future observations at ALMA's longest possible baseline of 16 kilometers will produce even clearer images and continue to expand our understanding of the cosmos.

"This observation illustrates the dramatic and important results that come from NSF supporting world-class instrumentation such as ALMA," said Fleming Crim, the National Science Foundation assistant director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences. "ALMA is delivering on its enormous potential for revealing the distant Universe and is playing a unique and transformational role in astronomy."

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17 comments

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Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (10) Nov 06, 2014
Astounding observation!

And also potentially illuminating on the system formation process.

- To make the planets that we see current models show that the planetesimal formation process must be very quick, happening before the protoplanetary disk gas can disperse much. That means it has to be started within 0.3 Myr.

[ http://astrobites...-budget/ , http://arxiv.org/...21v1.pdf ]

- The Kepler sample derives statistically from two different populations, a set with 4 - 8 planets per star which our system belongs to, and an equally large set with 1 planet per star.

This observation fits neatly into the earlier data set.
heliosphericity
2.6 / 5 (5) Nov 06, 2014
It looks like a disk, but what makes it a planet-forming disk?
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (8) Nov 06, 2014
Notice that we have the exact same situation here of inferring function from form, as when the Electric Universe points to the unusually common observation of bipolar morphologies as evidence for z-pinch.

Of course, the researchers will need to demonstrate that it is not a debris disc resulting from some former catastrophic interaction. Or, based on former scenarios, they will simply refuse to ask that question.
El_Nose
5 / 5 (4) Nov 06, 2014
@heliosphericity

you are right, it's not automatically planet forming disks -- but most likely will be under the right conditions

Those being something either internal or external that causes clumping. stray gas, rocks, debris, strong magnetic field flux, nonuniform mass density of the star, almost anything will cause clumping to occur in the clouds, and once that happens larger objects will be produced... otherwise you will have a star with a huge asteroid belt/Oort cloud which will probably happen no matter what.

@HannesAlfven

even IF it was a debris disk formed from something else -- the outcome is still a star with planets/asteroids/large rocks
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (9) Nov 06, 2014
Of course, the researchers will need to demonstrate that it is not a debris disc resulting from some former catastrophic interaction. Or, based on former scenarios, they will simply refuse to ask that question
@halfvie
no, the question is what empirical evidence published in a reputable peer reviewed journal with an impact in astrophysics supports your conclusions?
you don't know what questions were and were not asked for the study, either
(unless you have some psychic knowledge of the authors and process?)

you provided nothing to substantiate your claims at all

and the eu is a known debunked pseudoscience, so don't bother linking to that or to their pet ieee engineering site, because there is no peer review on astrophysical phenomenon for that rag

you've made the claim
extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and you've given nothing but claims
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (9) Nov 06, 2014
@heliosphericity: The arxiv reference I gave is suggestive: they claim that to explain what we see, planet formation must be very effective and will then happen (almost) irrespective of constraints.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (10) Nov 06, 2014
@Ren82: No, the inner part inside the least radius planet dust-sweeping gap is not the star, it is too large. This is a young system seen in radio, so apparently we can't resolve the star.
barakn
4.6 / 5 (11) Nov 07, 2014
It looks like a disk, but what makes it a planet-forming disk?

The gaps between the rings are strongly suggestive of young planets or smaller objects that have swept their orbits clean.
viko_mx
1 / 5 (5) Nov 07, 2014
What gives you reason to think so? In our solar system have similar structures that have failed to become planets or massive satellites for hypothetical billions of years.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (6) Nov 07, 2014
@Ren82: Agreed, that is what I wanted to say. The diameter of the central object is set by a planet, and a planet can't form at the surface of a protostar. (They can orbit within dying red giant stars though, it seems from observation. But those stars are very dilute at the edges.)
barakn
4.6 / 5 (10) Nov 07, 2014
Not sure what structures you are referring to, viko_mx. Perhaps the Saturn rings? The B ring, the most massive of these rings, is only 3 x10^19 kg, enough material to make an asteroid the size of Juno. Juno, one should note, doesn't have enough mass or gravity to avoid having an irregular shape. Also all the rings except E and Phoebe are within the Roche limit of Saturn, inside of which tidal forces are strong enough to pull things apart, and the rings' position near the bottom of Saturn's gravity well makes them the target of high-velocity collisions as well. Saturn's rings are a poor model for planetary formation.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (4) Nov 07, 2014
It looks like a disk, but what makes it a planet-forming disk?
The gaps.
FineStructureConstant
5 / 5 (6) Nov 09, 2014
Good news, great image, but pathetic, pointless video.
ALMA, living up to its promise, has now provided direct proof that nature and theory are very much in agreement
EU acolytes: go play with your battery-driven toy train set.
vulcanscienceacademy
4.8 / 5 (6) Nov 10, 2014
What seems to be overlooked in the article and ultimately is so fantastic about the story is that the image absolutely and unquestionably affirms a well known theory of planetary accretion (and formation) that was proposed decades before the technology was available to actually see an example of it actually taking place.

So much for the 'And on the 4th day' mythology.
Mike_Massen
4.3 / 5 (6) Nov 13, 2014
viko_mx/Ren82 claimed
What gives you reason to think so? In our solar system have similar structures that have failed to become planets or massive satellites for hypothetical billions of years.
Its called Mass viko_mx, it comes from Science viko_mx, you know the stuff based on maths & physics.

Alternatively why don't you ask your god, I guess he has the answer as you are emotionally attached to creationism.

Where is the evidence viko_mx/Ren82, that some god spoke to Moses & forced him to write a book ?

Science is about evidence somewhere in that discipline, where is the evidence viko_mx ?

Science="The discipline of the acquisition of knowledge?

Religion has no discipline - why is that viko_mx ?

Wouldn't it be correct to label religion a failed first attempt at "trying to know" with hypothesis but, failed the next step which is Evidence ?

Why are creationists like robots, the same, 1 day apart viko_mx & Ren82 ?

Evidence please, this is Science ?
rockwolf1000
5 / 5 (7) Nov 13, 2014
@Mike_Massen

Science="The discipline of the acquisition of knowledge?

Religion has no discipline - why is that viko_mx ?


I would disagree on that last point.

Religion= The discipline of mind control.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (5) Nov 14, 2014
@Mike_Massen

Science="The discipline of the acquisition of knowledge?

Religion has no discipline - why is that viko_mx ?


I would disagree on that last point.

Religion= The discipline of mind control.
...and the controlling of others
especially those too weak or with low self esteem...
or those with ego problems
and susceptible to control by alpha type leaders or Con men

which is why pseudoscience like EU has so many acolytes!

@FineStructureConstant
ROTFLMFAO
THANK YOU, you made my day with that comment
100stars!

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