An international team of scientists was able to capture images of planet-forming disks hundreds of light years away from Earth. The photos, which are an achievement in itself, shed new light on how planetary systems come to be.
Those protoplanetary clouds of dust and gas, shaped like vinyl music records, appear around young stars and astronomers believe the matter found in them eventually turns into planets.
Scientists previously struggled to properly capture planet-forming disks, as even the images from the largest telescopes weren’t detailed enough. A new study, published in Astronomy & Astrophysics on Thursday, solved this problem by coming up with completely different observation techniques.
Lead author Jacques Kluska from KU Leuven in Belgium and his colleagues, who were working on the project at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile, have relied on the method called infrared interferometry.
They used ESO’s PIONIER instrument to combine the light collected by four telescopes and obtain the images of the disks. That was not the end of their work, as the light of the stars hindered the level of detail in the photos, so the missing pieces had to be recovered through mathematical reconstruction.
“I’m thrilled that we now for the first time have fifteen of these images,” Kluska said. The photos showed the inner rims of planet-forming disks where rocky planets like Earth are believed to be forming.
“Distinguishing details at the scale of the orbits of rocky planets like Earth or Jupiter – a fraction of the Earth-Sun distance – is equivalent to being able to see a human on the Moon, or to distinguish a hair at a 10 km distance,” pointed out Jean-Philippe Berger of the Université Grenoble-Alpes in France, who was in charge of working with the PIONIER instrument.
The images received by the team have revealed “brighter or less bright” spots in the disks, which could be “instabilities” that would eventually result in the formation of planets. Kluska and his team are planning to do additional research to figure out what causes those processes, while also trying to obtain even more detailed images of protoplanetary clouds.