ALMA Reveals Birth of Planets in Astonishing Detail

ALMA Views Planet Formation Around an Infant Star

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. Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

While testing the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array’s new high-resolution capabilities, astronomers captured the best image ever of planet formation around an infant star.

This revolutionary new 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 never-before-seen features in this system, including 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. 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,” said ALMA Deputy Director Stuartt Corder.

All stars are believed to 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 protoplanetary disk where asteroids, comets, and planets form.

Birth of Planets Revealed in Astonishing Detail

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. Credit: National Science Foundation, A. Khan

Once these planetary bodies acquire enough mass, they dramatically 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 exquisite 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. ALMA, living up to its promise, has now provided direct proof that nature and theory are very much in agreement.


NRAO Director Tony Beasley discusses the impact of ALMA’s new high resolution observations of HL Tau. Credit NRAO/AUI/NSF

“This new and unexpected result provides an incredible view of the process of planet formation. Such clarity is essential to understand how our own Solar System came to be and how planets form throughout the Universe,” said Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Virginia, which manages ALMA operations for astronomers in North America.

HL Tau is hidden in visible light behind a massive envelope of dust and gas. Since ALMA observes at much longer wavelengths, it is able to peer through the intervening dust to study the processes right at the core of this cloud. “This is truly one of the most remarkable images ever seen at these wavelengths. The level of detail is so exquisite that it’s even more impressive than many optical images. The fact that we can see planets being born will help us understand not only how planets form around other stars but also the origin of our own Solar System,” said NRAO astronomer Crystal Brogan.

ALMA’s new high-resolution capabilities were achieved by spacing the antennas up to 15 kilometers apart. This baseline at millimeter wavelengths enabled a resolution of 35 milliarcseconds, which is equivalent to a penny as seen from more than 110 kilometers away.

“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, including the best optical observatories,” noted ALMA Director Pierre Cox.


Artist’s animation 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. Credit: National Science Foundation, A. Khan

These long baselines fulfill one of ALMA’s major objectives and mark an impressive technological and engineering milestone. Future observations at ALMA’s longest possible baseline of 16 kilometers will produce even clearer images and continue to expand our understanding of the cosmos.

“This observation illustrates the dramatic and important results that come from NSF supporting world-class instrumentation such as ALMA,” said Fleming Crim, the National Science Foundation assistant director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences. “ALMA is delivering on its enormous potential for revealing the distant Universe and is playing a unique and transformational role in astronomy.”

Source: National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Images: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); National Science Foundation, A. Khan

1 Comment on "ALMA Reveals Birth of Planets in Astonishing Detail"

  1. “…multiple rings and gaps that herald the presence of emerging planets as they sweep their orbits clear of dust and gas.”
    The gaps could equally well signify the presence of captured free planetoids which have swept the orbits clear. Emerging planets would not do the job so efficiently, so the gaps could be expected to be less bright than the rings, rather than dark. [Note: Further down the article this process is described as “surprising” – see comment below]

    “…planet-forming disk…”
    Yes, it is a disk. Is it planet-forming (protoplanetary)? No. Otherwise Saturn would have no rings and the Solar System would have no Asteroid Belt – they would long since have accreted to moons and planet(s) respectively.

    “These structures suggest that planet formation is already well underway around this remarkably young star.”
    Only according to the core accretion theory of planetary formation.

    “These features are almost certainly the result of young planet-like bodies that are being formed in the disk. 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,”
    It is not surprising to me, because I do not believe in core accretion and consider that the gaps have been formed by captured free planets gravity vacuum cleaning their orbital paths. This process can happen as soon as the star is born – even before it ignites.

    “All stars are believed to form within clouds of gas and dust that collapse under gravity.”
    Only first-generation stars were formed in this way, from the clouds of hydrogen which existed after the Big Bang. Subsequent generation stars formed considerably faster, because they were seeded by large lumps of shrapnel from first-generation supernovas passing through gas clouds and accumulating a gas coat through exponential increase of their self-gravity.

    “Once these planetary bodies acquire enough mass…”
    See comments above. The planets – however they might be formed – don’t “shepherd” the gas, dust and rubble of the disk into tighter and more confined zones, because that would imply that gravity could push as well as pull! It is simply that the material further away from the sweeping planet than the distance where its aggregate gravitational pull balances the pull of the planet is left undisturbed.

    The article also fails to mention the significant long gap in the “north-west” of thin fourth ring and the less dark features diametrically opposite it. Could it be that these are artifacts of the ALMA array, which is still at the testing and commissioning stage?

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