Revolutionary ALMA Image Reveals Planetary Genesis
5 November, 2014 / Read time: 8 minutes
A new image from ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, reveals extraordinarily fine detail that has never been seen before in the planet-forming disc around a young star. ALMA’s new high-resolution capabilities were achieved by spacing the antennas up to 15 kilometers apart1. This new result represents an enormous step forward in the understanding of how protoplanetary discs develop and how planets form.
ALMA has obtained its most detailed image yet showing the structure of the disc around HL Tau2, a million-year-old Sun-like star located approximately 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Taurus. The image exceeds all expectations and reveals a series of concentric and bright rings, separated by gaps.
“These features are almost certainly the result of young planet-like bodies that are being formed in the disc. This is surprising since such young stars are not expected to have large planetary bodies capable of producing the structures we see in this image,” said Stuartt Corder, ALMA Deputy Director.
“When we first saw this image we were astounded at the spectacular level of detail. 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 revolutionize theories of planet formation,”explained Catherine Vlahakis, ALMA Deputy Program Scientist and Lead Program Scientist for the ALMA Long Baseline Campaign.
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, even the Hubble Space Telescope. “The logistics and infrastructure required to place antennas at such distant locations required an unprecedented coordinated effort for the international expert team of engineers and scientists” said ALMA Director, Pierre Cox. “These long baselines fulfill one of ALMA’s major objectives and mark an impressive technological, scientific and engineering milestone”, celebrated Cox.
Stars like HL Tau and our own Sun 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 disc where asteroids, comets, and planets form. Once these planetary bodies acquire enough mass, they dramatically reshape the structure of the disc, fashioning rings and gaps as the planets sweep their orbits clear of debris and shepherd dust and gas into tighter and more confined zones.
In the visible, HL Tau is partly obscured by the massive cloud of dust and gas that surrounds it. ALMA operates in such a way that it can see through the cloud and study the processes right at the center. This new ALMA image provides the clearest evidence to date that not only does this process occur, but also that it is faster than previously thought.
The investigation of these protoplanetary discs is essential to our understanding of how Earth formed in the Solar System. Observing the first stages of planet formation around HL Tauri may show us how our own planetary system may have looked more than four billion years ago, when it formed.
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) in Taiwan and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).
ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.
- Since September 2014 ALMA has been observing the Universe using its longest ever baselines, with antennas separated by up to 15 kilometers. This Long Baseline Campaign will continue until 1 December 2014. The baseline is the distance between two of the antennas in the array. As a comparison, other facilities operating at millimeter wavelengths provide antennas separated by no more than two kilometers. The maximum possible ALMA baseline is 16 kilometers. Future observations at shorter wavelengths will achieve even higher image sharpness. ↩
- The structures are seen with a resolution of just five times the distance from the Sun to the Earth. This corresponds to an angular resolution of about 35 milliarcseconds — better than what is routinely achieved with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. ↩
Charles E. Blue