First Clear Detection of a Moon-Forming Disc Around a Planet Outside Our Solar System

Moon-Forming Disc As Seen With ALMA

This image, taken with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), shows wide (left) and close-up (right) views of the moon-forming disc surrounding PDS 70c, a young Jupiter-like planet nearly 400 light-years away. The close-up view shows PDS 70c and its circumplanetary disc center-front, with the larger circumstellar ring-like disc taking up most of the right-hand side of the image. The star PDS 70 is at the center of the wide-view image on the left.
Two planets have been found in the system, PDS 70c and PDS 70b, the latter not being visible in this image. They have carved a cavity in the circumstellar disc as they gobbled up material from the disc itself, growing in size. In this process, PDS 70c acquired its own circumplanetary disc, which contributes to the growth of the planet and where moons can form. This circumplanetary disc is as large as the Sun-Earth distance and has enough mass to form up to three satellites the size of the Moon.
Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Benisty et al.

Using the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is a partner, astronomers have unambiguously detected the presence of a disc around a planet outside our Solar System for the first time. The observations will shed new light on how moons and planets form in young stellar systems.

“Our work presents a clear detection of a disc in which satellites could be forming,” says Myriam Benisty, a researcher at the University of Grenoble, France, and at the University of Chile, who led the new research published today in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. “Our ALMA observations were obtained at such exquisite resolution that we could clearly identify that the disc is associated with the planet and we are able to constrain its size for the first time,” she adds.


Using ALMA, a team of astronomers have unambiguously detected a moon-forming disc around a distant planet for the first time. The planet is a Jupiter-like gas giant, hosted in a system still in the process of being formed. The result promises to shed new light on how moons and planets form in young stellar systems. This video summarizes the discovery. Credit: ESO

The disc in question, called a circumplanetary disc, surrounds the exoplanet PDS 70c, one of two giant, Jupiter-like planets orbiting a star nearly 400 light-years away. Astronomers had found hints of a “moon-forming” disc around this exoplanet before but, since they could not clearly tell the disc apart from its surrounding environment, they could not confirm its detection — until now.

PDS 70 System As Seen With ALMA

This image, taken with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which ESO is a partner, shows the PDS 70 system, located nearly 400 light-years away and still in the process of being formed. The system features a star at its center and at least two planets orbiting it, PDS 70b (not visible in the image) and PDS 70c, surrounded by a circumplanetary disc (the dot to the right of the star). The planets have carved a cavity in the circumstellar disc (the ring-like structure that dominates the image) as they gobbled up material from the disc itself, growing in size. It was during this process that PDS 70c acquired its own circumplanetary disc, which contributes to the growth of the planet and where moons can form. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Benisty et al.

In addition, with the help of ALMA, Benisty and her team found that the disc has about the same diameter as the distance from our Sun to the Earth and enough mass to form up to three satellites the size of the Moon.

But the results are not only key to finding out how moons arise. “These new observations are also extremely important to prove theories of planet formation that could not be tested until now,” says Jaehan Bae, a researcher from the Earth and Planets Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution for Science, USA, and author on the study.

Moon-Forming Disc Around the PDS 70c Exoplanet

This image, taken with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which ESO is a partner, shows a close-up view on the moon-forming disc surrounding PDS 70c, a young Jupiter-like gas giant nearly 400 light-years away. It shows this planet and its disc center-front, with the larger circumstellar ring-like disc taking up most of the right-hand side of the image. The dusty circumplanetary disc is as large as the Sun-Earth distance and has enough mass to form up to three satellites the size of the Moon. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Benisty et al.

Planets form in dusty discs around young stars, carving out cavities as they gobble up material from this circumstellar disc to grow. In this process, a planet can acquire its own circumplanetary disc, which contributes to the growth of the planet by regulating the amount of material falling onto it. At the same time, the gas and dust in the circumplanetary disc can come together into progressively larger bodies through multiple collisions, ultimately leading to the birth of moons.

But astronomers do not yet fully understand the details of these processes. “In short, it is still unclear when, where, and how planets and moons form,” explains ESO Research Fellow Stefano Facchini, also involved in the research.


This artist’s animation zooms out from a close-up view on PDS 70c — a young Jupiter-like, gas giant nearly 400 light-years away. While moving away from PDS 70c, we first encounter the moon-forming disc surrounding the planet, with a white point signaling the location where a moon could be forming. As we move further, the orange dwarf star at the center of the system comes into view, as does PDS 70b, another planet found in this system. We also see a large ring, a remnant of the circumstellar disc from which the two planets have formed. At the end of the video, we see the real astronomical image of the system, taken with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Credit: ESO/L. Calçada, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Benisty et al.

“More than 4000 exoplanets have been found until now, but all of them were detected in mature systems. PDS 70b and PDS 70c, which form a system reminiscent of the Jupiter-Saturn pair, are the only two exoplanets detected so far that are still in the process of being formed,” explains Miriam Keppler, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany and one of the co-authors of the study.[1]

“This system, therefore, offers us a unique opportunity to observe and study the processes of planet and satellite formation,” Facchini adds.

Widefield Image of the Sky Around PDS 70

This colorful image shows the sky around the faint orange dwarf star PDS 70 (in the middle of the image). The bright blue star to the right is χ Centauri. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgment: Davide De Martin

PDS 70b and PDS 70c, the two planets making up the system, were first discovered using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in 2018 and 2019 respectively, and their unique nature means they have been observed with other telescopes and instruments many times since.[2]

The latest high-resolution ALMA observations have now allowed astronomers to gain further insights into the system. In addition to confirming the detection of the circumplanetary disc around PDS 70c and studying its size and mass, they found that PDS 70b does not show clear evidence of such a disc, indicating that it was starved of dust material from its birth environment by PDS 70c.

Dwarf Star PDS 70 in the Constellation Centaurus

This chart shows the southern constellation of Centaurus and marks most of the stars visible to the unaided eye on a clear dark night. The dwarf star PDS 70 is marked with a red circle. Credit: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope

An even deeper understanding of the planetary system will be achieved with ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction on Cerro Armazones in the Chilean Atacama desert. “The ELT will be key for this research since, with its much higher resolution, we will be able to map the system in great detail,” says co-author Richard Teague, a researcher at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, USA. In particular, by using the ELT’s Mid-infrared ELT Imager and Spectrograph (METIS), the team will be able to look at the gas motions surrounding PDS 70c to get a full 3D picture of the system.


This sequence takes the viewer towards the southern constellation of Centaurus. We zoom in on the orange dwarf star PDS 70, which is located about 400 light-years away and has at least two planets orbiting it. The final shot shows the spectacular new image, taken with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) of the PDS 70 system, where a moon-forming disc is visible around planet PDS 70c. Credit: ESO, N. Risinger (skysurvey.org), DSS, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Benisty et al. Music: Astral electronic.

Notes

  1. Despite the similarity with the Jupiter-Saturn pair, note that the disc around PDS 70c is about 500 times larger than Saturn’s rings.
  2. PDS 70b was discovered using the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument, while PDS 70c was found using the VLT’s Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE). The two-planet system has been investigated using the X-shooter instrument too, also installed on ESO’s VLT.

Reference: “A Circumplanetary Disk Around PDS 70c” by Myriam Benisty, Jaehan Bae, Stefano Facchini, Miriam Keppler, Richard Teague, Andrea Isella, Nicolas T. Kurtovic, Laura M. Pérez, Anibal Sierra, Sean M. Andrews, John Carpenter, Ian Czekala, Carsten Dominik, Thomas Henning, Francois Menard, Paola Pinilla and Alice Zurlo, 22 July 2021, The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ac0f83

The team is composed of Myriam Benisty (Unidad Mixta Internacional Franco-Chilena de Astronomía, CNRS, Departamento de Astronomía, Universidad de Chile, Santiago de Chile, Chile and Université Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, Grenoble, France [UGA]), Jaehan Bae (Earth and Planets Laboratory, Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington DC, USA), Stefano Facchini (European Southern Observatory, Garching bei München, Germany), Miriam Keppler (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg, Germany [MPIA]), Richard Teague (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, Cambridge, MA, USA [CfA]), Andrea Isella (Department of Physics and Astronomy, Rice University, Houston, TX, USA), Nicolas T. Kurtovic (MPIA), Laura M. Perez (Departamento de Astronomía, Universidad de Chile, Santiago de Chile, Chile [UCHILE]), Anibal Sierra (UCHILE), Sean M. Andrews (CfA), John Carpenter (Joint ALMA Observatory, Santiago de Chile, Chile), Ian Czekala (Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pennsylvania State University, PA, USA, Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds, Davey Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University, PA, USA, Center for Astrostatistics, Davey Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University, PA, USA and Institute for Computational & Data Sciences, Pennsylvania State University, PA, USA), Carsten Dominik (Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands), Thomas Henning (MPIA), Francois Menard (UGA), Paola Pinilla (MPIA and Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, Holmbury St Mary, Dorking, UK) and Alice Zurlo (Núcleo de Astronomía, Facultad de Ingeniería y Ciencias, Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago de Chile, Chile and Escuela de Ingeniería Industrial, Facultad de Ingeniería y Ciencias, Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago de Chile, Chile).

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organization in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It has 16 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a Strategic Partner. ESO carries out an ambitious program focused on the design, construction, and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organizing cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal, and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its world-leading Very Large Telescope Interferometer as well as two survey telescopes, VISTA working in the infrared and the visible-light VLT Survey Telescope. Also at Paranal ESO will host and operate the Cherenkov Telescope Array South, the world’s largest and most sensitive gamma-ray observatory. ESO is also a major partner in two facilities on Chajnantor, APEX and ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-meter Extremely Large Telescope, the ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky.”

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of 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) 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.

3 Comments on "First Clear Detection of a Moon-Forming Disc Around a Planet Outside Our Solar System"

  1. Ramon Careaga | July 22, 2021 at 7:48 am | Reply

    Great; now they will witness firsthand the power of plasma-electromagnetism, and the verification of predictions of many previously ignored scientists. The accretion by gravity model will be finally debunked. I mean, Haumea already did debunk it, but no one was paying attention.

  2. Edward Gazsi | July 22, 2021 at 12:42 pm | Reply

    Did anyone notice that the star in the center of the dust halo is dimmer than the planet that orbits it? Now, how can that be? In the video, the none existent star has been edited to be as bright as a solar body. Why the editing?

  3. Simply amazing site fan! I’ve noticed it the S.E skies early evening! Only few humans can see it doe? I believe that’s because the don’t truly believe it! I’m glad doe! Keeps um off the news debunking !

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