Scientists have shared a breathtaking image that offers new insights into the mysterious processes of planet birth. The image, obtained from the European Southern Observatory (ESO), hints at the formation of giant planets similar in scale to Jupiter.
The teams employed the use of two monumental instruments, ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), to observe large, dusty clumps on the verge of collapse near a young star – a precursor to the birth of a planet.
“This discovery is truly captivating as it marks the very first detection of clumps around a young star that have the potential to give rise to giant planets,” said Alice Zurlo, a researcher at Chile’s Universidad Diego Portales. The discovery signifies a major advance in our understanding of the origin of heavenly bodies.
Researchers have been analyzing an enthralling image captured by the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument installed on ESO’s VLT. The image reveals intricate details of material in the vicinity of a young star, V960 Mon, which is situated over 5,000 light-years away in the constellation Monoceros.
The star garnered significant scientific interest when its brightness suddenly surged more than twenty-fold in 2014. Subsequent SPHERE observations, taken after this dramatic “outburst,” unveiled the material orbiting V960 Mon as it began to assemble into an elaborate series of spiral arms that span distances greater than our entire Solar System.
This remarkable discovery prompted astronomers to revisit archived observations of the same system, captured by ALMA. The VLT observations delved into the surface of the dusty material around the star, while ALMA could probe deeper into its structure.
“With ALMA, it became apparent that the spiral arms are undergoing fragmentation, resulting in the formation of clumps with masses akin to those of planets,” Zurlo explained.
Planet formation has long been thought to occur through one of two processes: “core accretion,” which involves the agglomeration of dust grains, or “gravitational instability,” which involves the contraction and collapse of large fragments of star-bound material. Although prior research has provided evidence for core accretion, observational support for gravitational instability has been much rarer.
Yet, this seems to be changing. “No one had ever seen a real observation of gravitational instability happening at planetary scales – until now,” said study leader Philipp Weber, a researcher at the University of Santiago, Chile.
“Our group has been searching for signs of how planets form for over ten years, and we couldn’t be more thrilled about this incredible discovery,” said study co-author Sebastián Pérez.
This investigation, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, is just the beginning. ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction in Chile’s Atacama Desert, will facilitate the exploration of this newly discovered planetary system in unprecedented detail.
“The ELT will enable the exploration of the chemical complexity surrounding these clumps, helping us find out more about the composition of the material from which potential planets are forming,” said Weber.
The process of planet formation, also known as planetary accretion, is a complex one that happens over millions to billions of years. Here is a simplified explanation of the process:
Everything starts with a nebula, which is a massive cloud of dust and gas. The nebula could be the remnants of a dead star or it could just be a dense area in space where the dust and gas are naturally accumulating.
The nebula collapses under its own gravity, causing the material to start spinning and form a disc. In the center of this disc, a protostar is formed, which will eventually become a star.
Around the protostar, the rest of the material forms a flat, spinning disk known as a protoplanetary disk. The materials in this disk include tiny, solid particles of dust and rock that collide and stick together.
As these particles continue to collide and stick together, they form larger and larger bodies. When they reach about a kilometer in size, their gravitational pull becomes strong enough to draw in more material. These kilometer-sized objects are known as planetesimals.
As planetesimals continue to collide and merge, they eventually form protoplanets. Protoplanets are basically baby planets – they’re large enough to have a strong gravitational pull, but they’re still growing.
Over millions to billions of years, protoplanets continue to collide and merge until they form full-fledged planets. Some planets, like Earth, also undergo additional processes like core formation and atmospheric development.
Please note that this is a simplified explanation and there’s still a lot that scientists don’t know about planet formation. For example, the exact process through which small particles of dust and rock stick together to form larger bodies is still a topic of active research.
Image Credit: ESO/ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Weber et al.