Astronomers are Witnessing Planet Formation in all its Glory

Our Solar System isn’t so incredibly diversified for no reason. We can observe the rings of Saturn, the storms on Jupiter, the two extreme sides of Mercury, and most of all: the fantastic life diversity from Earth. All of this represents the outcome of billions of years of evolution and adaptation. And there cometh the ultimate ingredient for planet formation: gravity.

We all know that gravity keeps our feet on the ground, makes cars take turns, and even keeps our leg muscles at an optimal level. There had been situations when astronomers who came back from space missions couldn’t maintain themselves on their feet anymore. This occurred due to the lack of stimulation that gravity has every day on our muscles. But how many of us knew that gravity has a much crucial role in the Universe like forming planets, stars, and even galaxies? Gravity bound matter together when it was all shapeless and chaotic.

15 new images of the inner rims of planet-forming disks

An international team of astronomers has been witnessing planet formation in its ongoing process. The disks of dust and gas are taking shape around young stars just like it happened for our own Solar System about 5 billion years ago. The newfound images have the potential of shedding some light on how solar systems are born.

The amounts of dust in the disks can grow into larger and massive bodies like planets, due to the force of gravity. All nearby objects in the Universe are attracted to each other, but the attraction is most of the time too weak to be detected. You can observe the effects of gravity anytime on your own by adding two plastic balls in a basin of water. After several hours or maybe even minutes, the two balls will be significantly closer to each other. Gravity behaves in a similar way when it’s forming planets, only that it requires a much longer time.

The lead author of the study, Jacques Kluska from KU Leuven in Belgium, declared the following:

In these pictures, the regions close to the star, where rocky planets form, are covered by only few pixels,

We needed to visualize these details to be able to identify patterns that might betray planet formation and to characterize the properties of the disks.

Kluska along with his colleagues created the 15 new images at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. They had been using a new technique called infrared interferometry. The scientists combined the light detected by four telescopes at the Very Large Telescope observatory to capture the detailed disks. They had been using ESO’s PIONIER instrument.

Jean-Philippe Berger, who was in charge of the work with the PIONIER instrument, details for us how difficult the operation was:

Distinguishing details at the scale of the orbits of rocky planets like Earth or Jupiter (as you can see in the images)—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,

However, gravity doesn’t always have to form solid rocky planets like Earth or Mars. The fundamental force of nature acts on any type of matter, and we have at least two very solid proofs in our Solar System: Jupiter and Saturn. These two planets are not called gas giants for nothing. They’re made almost entirely of gas, although scientists suspect that their cores are solid.

The study regarding the 15 newfound images was named “A family portrait of disk inner rims around Herbig Ae/Be stars: Hunting for warps, rings, self-shadowing and misalignments in the inner astronomical units” and it was published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

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