Astronomers have captured the “best image ever” of planet formation around a young star.
Best. Image. Ever.
You may expect to hear that from Comic Book Guy, but no – it’s from a press release by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, describing an image of planet formation around an infant star. Looking at the image captured by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), it’s difficult to argue.
The infant star is the Sun-like HL Tau, located 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus. Only one million years old, the apparent formation of planets around it has caught astronomers by surprise.
“…such young stars are not expected to have large planetary bodies capable of producing the structures we see in this image,” said ALMA Deputy Director Stuartt Corder.
The structures to which Corder is referring are the concentric rings and black bands. When a solar system is forming around a young star, it begins as a cloud of dust that settles into a disk – not unlike around Saturn. Material in the spinning disk begins to coalesce into larger and larger objects, which “sweep” the area around them of dust as they orbit. Every black ring represents a new planet forming.
Check out the actual image relative to an artist’s conception – it’s difficult to decide which is more beautiful.
HL Tau is actually concealed by a cloud of dust and gas – it cannot be seen by the naked eye, or even under the intense magnification of a telescope. But thankfully, ALMA doesn’t just observe visible wavelengths of light – it can see into the ultraviolet and infrared as well, effectively seeing “through” the dust cloud and revealing HL Tau behind it.
“This is truly one of the most remarkable images ever seen at these wavelengths,” said NRAO astronomer Crystal Brogan. “The level of detail is so exquisite that it’s even more impressive than many optical images.”
ALMA’s high-resolution capabilities are equivalent to seeing a penny from more than 68 miles away.
In other recent astronomy news, an object once believed to be a dust cloud survived a close encounter with a black hole without being torn apart.