Whether your candidate won or not, the sky and its amazing contents will always catch your fall. New pictures taken with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) show amazing details in three solar systems in the making. Each of three teams of astronomers used an advanced planet-hunting instrument called SPHERE to discover how each star and the possible planets that orbit them sculpt unique rings and whirls in the vast disks of gas and dust encircling them.
Called protoplanetary disks, they can extend for billions of miles around their central stars. Over time, particles of ice and dust within the disk collide, combine and eventually build up into planets. That’s the general outline, but we lack the finer details, the step-by-step. That’s where SPHERE plays an important role. The instrument has two parts: an opaque disk to block the light of the brilliant central star, the better to view the faint rings of debris surrounding it, and an automated system that compensates for the blurring effect of Earth’s atmosphere. Block the star and still the air and you can now get in very close to the star to study its newly forming planets.
SPHERE works by removing the bouncing and shimmering caused by Earth’s atmosphere (first part of video), then using a disk to block of the light of the star (second part) to study the protoplanetary disk around it (third part).
Planets are where it’s at in astronomy right now. Exoplanets that is — to date 3,541 new planets around stars other than the sun have been discovered. That’s an incredible number of new objects for researchers to follow up on. With SPHERE, astronomers can take photos of fine details in planetary disks and discover how growing planets shape their birthing disks into rings, spiral arms or shadowed voids.
Around the young star RX J1615 in the constellation of Scorpius 600 light-years from Earth, a team led by the Jos de Boer, of Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, found a complex system of concentric rings resembling a gigantic version of the rings that encircle Saturn. With an estimated age of just 1.8 million years, the disk shows hints of being shaped by planets still in the process of formation. It’s incredible to see something this young as most disks found so far are relatively old or much more evolved.
Another team observed HD 97048, another young star located in the constellation of Chamaeleon about 500 light-years from Earth. It’s also surrounded by concentric rings where planets may be forming. The third star, HD 135344B, located about 450 light years away, resembles a spiral galaxy but instead of stars, it’s formed of dust. Although this star has been well-studied in the past, SPHERE allowed the team to see the star’s disk in much greater detail. The large central cavity and two prominent spiral arm-like structures are thought to have been created by one or multiple massive protoplanets destined to become Jupiter-like worlds.
Four dark streaks, apparently shadows thrown by the movement of material within HD 135344B’s disk, were also observed. Remarkably, one of the streaks noticeably changed in the months between observing periods providing a rare example of observing planetary evolution occur in real time. I’ll just say it — wow!
Every new photo brings us one step closer to understanding both how solar systems form and what makes each unique. Kind of makes you wonder what ours looked like back when all was still dust.
** News Flash! I’ll be signing and selling copies of my new book Night Sky with the Naked Eye and doing a special show at the Alworth Planetarium on the University of Minnesota-Duluth campus this evening from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Refreshments will be served. Signing begins at 6:30 followed by a 7 p.m. show on the upcoming supermoon. From 7:30-8:30 p.m. I’ll sign some more then we’ll go out to look at the moon through a telescope. Please stop by – I’d love to see you! And the forecast looks clear tonight.