The Birth Of A Planet Has Been Captured By Astronomers In Astonishing Detail

This is an 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. Image: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

Astronomers have captured what they call the best image ever of planet formation around an infant star.

The image came as part of the testing and verification process for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array’s (ALMA) new high-resolution capabilities.

This 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 multiple concentric rings separated by clearly defined gaps. These structures suggest that planet formation 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,” says ALMA Deputy Director Stuartt Corder.

“This is surprising since HL Tau is no more than a million years old and such young stars are not expected to have large planetary bodies capable of producing the structures we see in this image.”

All stars are believed to form within clouds of gas and dust which collapse under gravity.

Over time, the surrounding dust particles stick together, growing into sand, pebbles and larger rocks.

These eventually settle into a thin disk where asteroids, comets and planets form.

Once these planetary bodies acquire enough mass, they 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 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.

This is 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. Image: National Science Foundation, A. Khan

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