Astronomers have found ‘intriguing’ shadows in new photos of alien solar systems

Very Large Telescope four lasers 5

Astronomers have used a powerful mountaintop observatory to
record three of the most detailed photos yet of infant alien
solar systems forming planets.

The scientists were even able to see “intriguing” shadows cast by
clouds of gas and dust in one of the images.

The photos could help pop more pieces into the longstanding
puzzle of how
came to exist.

Ask an astronomer how planets form, and she’ll say parts of a
giant wheel of gas and dust around a newborn star, called a
protoplanetary disk, somehow collapse into blobs. Each blob
snowballs, clearing lanes in the disk as it grows bigger and
bigger until you have a new planet. Cooking time: A few million

But the
details are still mysterious
. For example: What starts the
party? How do planets end up spinning? And what causes a rocky
planet to form as opposed to a gas giant?

“[A]stronomers don’t know exactly how planets are formed,” Emma
Yu, an astronomer at the University of Texas in Austin, writes
at “Ask An Astronomer”

So we continue to look to the stars for clues — and the
“unprecedented detail” in the new images, write the authors of



in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, may
bring them that much closer to the complicated truth.

The scientists used an instrument called SPHERE
on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) — an array of four different
telescopes run by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) — to
take the new images of infant solar systems and their
protoplanetary disks.

SPHERE made this possible because it blocks out the light of the
central star, allowing any dim protoplanetary disks to be seen.

Here’s one that looks top-down on the star system HD 135344B,
which is located some 450 light-years from Earth:

protoplanet formation gas disk eso1640d

ESO, T. Stolker et

Some of the arms are brighter than the others, which is strange —
they appeared to be shadows. And over several observations, the
shadows appeared to move.

Astronomers who
this image eventually realized that the nascent solar
system had twisted inner and outer disks, not just one flat disk,
and the moving material was causing the shadows, much like a bird
flying in front of a lighthouse’s lamp.

From there, they figured out what a cross-section of the system
looked like, including a “warp” zone between the disks (25 AU, or
astronomical units, is about the distance from the sun to
somewhere between Uranus and Neptune):

protoplanetary disk astronomy astrophysics t stolker

Stolker et al./Astronomy & Astrophysics

Below is another new image of a new solar system from SPHERE.

This one is called RX J1615, and it’s a real baby at just 1.8
million years old (our solar system is about 4.6 billion years

The SPHERE image shows the system from a glancing angle, which
another group
of astronomers to figure out some of its
secrets from 600 light-years away:

protoplanet solar system gas dust eso1640b

ESO, J. de Boer et

The photo is a first and revealed “a complex system of concentric
rings surrounding the young star, forming a shape resembling a
titanic version of the rings that encircle Saturn,” according to
an ESO press

And below is yet another new image studied by
a third group
of astronomers.

This star system, called HD 97048, is located about 500
light-years away. It has some unusual structures and gaps —
features that helped the team figure where its nascent planets
might be:

protoplanet solar system gas dust eso1640c

ESO, C. Ginski et

“Through painstaking analysis, they found that the juvenile disc
around this star has also formed into concentric rings,”
according to the ESO’s release, and with highly unusual symmetry.

Alone, each new image is pretty incredible: These are baby solar
systems that may one day form Earth-like planets.

But together they provide a wealth of information that
astronomers may one day use to figure out how, exactly, we all
got here.

from SAI