The Atacama Larger Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has been used to study the formation of planets in a distant solar system, with the results likely to further our understanding of the process. This latest observation represents the first time the telescope has been used in its near-final configuration, and is the sharpest ever submillimeter wavelength image.
The ALMA telescope, located in the Atacama desert in Chile, had its last array installed in October 2013. At a height of 16,500 ft (5,000 m) with 66 dishes spaced across 16 km (10 miles) of desert, the installation is uniquely suited to producing high-detail images between the infrared and radio wavelengths.
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The new observation (pictured below) was focused upon HL Tauri – a young star located some 450 light-years away. The recorded image clearly shows the disk of material left over after the formation of the star, including the gaps between the rings that are characteristic of planetary formation.
Stars such as HL Tauri form in clouds of dust and gas that eventually settle into a disk. The particles in the protoplanetary disk collide with each other and finally band together to form comets, asteroids and planets. These objects disrupt the distribution of material, creating tell-tale gaps and rings in the protoplanetary disk.
Due to its young age (just one million years), astronomers didn’t expect HL Tauri to exhibit such rings, as young stars are not thought to host planetary bodies with the mass necessary for them to form.
"When we first saw this image we were astounded at the spectacular level of detail," said ALMA Deputy Program Scientist Catherine Vlahakis. "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."
The image shows that planetary formation occurs more rapidly than previously thought, and may well lead to an improved understanding of the process, as well as provide an insight into how our own solar system may have looked when it formed more than 4 billion years ago.
Check out the video below for a 3D artists impression look at HL Tauri.