Astronomers Get a Look at Young Star’s Baby Planets

Scientists believe that cascades of gas and dust within disks rotating around young stars, such as HD 163296, likely contain prime conditions for formation of baby planets. (Robin Dienel / Carnegie Institution for Science)

(CN) – Astronomers studying the formation of three planets in the disk surrounding a young star found that planets and their atmospheres likely form in gaps between gas and dust-filled rings in the disk, according to a study released Wednesday.

The protoplanetary disk surrounding a star contains dense matter, including gases and mineral particulate, from which baby planets could form over time.

Carnegie Institution for Science researchers closely examined the material in the disks to understand planetary systems evolve.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope system in northern Chile, astronomers studied a young star called HD 163296, known to be surrounded by a protoplanetary disk containing several rings.

Researchers found three areas where gas was cascading into gaps in the disk, indicating that planets likely form in between disk rings, according to the study published in Nature.

The cascading areas were found at 87, 140 and 237 astronomical units – the distance between Earth and our sun – from the star, according to the study, which was supported by NASA.

University of Michigan researcher and lead author Richard Teague said in a statement that the study confirms a theory that planets form in cold areas of the disk that are shielded from a star’s radiation.

“Planets form in the middle layer of the disk, the so-called midplane. This is a cold place, shielded from radiation from the star,” Teague said. “We think that the gaps caused by planets bring in warmer gas from the more chemically active outer layers of the disk, and that this gas will form the atmosphere of the planet.”

The findings were confirmed by a computational model of the stellar system that had three planets placed within the simulation to uncover the “gas disturbances” in the disk, researchers said in the statement.

Carnegie researcher Jaehan Bae said in the statement that astronomers were able to calculate the velocities of the gases inside the disk using ALMA, a radio telescope made up of 66 antennas.

University of Michigan researcher Ted Bergin said that the findings build on understandings of disk gas velocity and will help astronomers find other young stars.

“This gives us a much more complete picture of planet formation than we ever dreamed,” Bergin said in the statement.

Bae added that researchers plan to hunt for exoplanets in the early stages of formation by analyzing the chemical composition of gases in protoplanetary disks.

“This could really help us understand how the architecture of a planetary system comes to be and maybe even unlock mysteries about the evolution of our own solar system,” Bae said.

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