Planets Forming Right Before Our Eyes

Using the ESO’s SPHERE instrument at the Very Large Telescope, a team of astronomer observed the planetary disc surrounding the star HD 135344B, about 450 light-years away. The disc shows prominent spiral arm-like structures. These are thought to have been created by one or multiple massive protoplanets, destined to become Jupiter-like worlds. The central part of the image appears dark because SPHERE blocks out the light from the brilliant central star to reveal the much fainter structures surrounding it. Credit: ESO, T. Stolker et al.

Using the ESO’s SPHERE instrument at the Very Large Telescope, a team of astronomer observed the planetary disk surrounding the star HD 135344B, located 450 light-years from Earth. The disk shows prominent spiral arm-like structures that are thought to have been created by one or multiple massive protoplanets, destined to become Jupiter-like worlds. The central part of the image appears dark because SPHERE blocks out the light from the brilliant central star to reveal the much fainter structures surrounding it. Credit: ESO, T. Stolker et al.

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.

Similar to how planets formed and migrated in the early solar system, scientists think that ice in Saturn's rings stuck glommed together to form some of its many moons. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech
4.5 billion years ago, the planets in our solar system formed from mineral dust, bits of metal and ice that stuck together to eventually form protoplanets. Astronomers have photographed similar rings of dust around other stars.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

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.

Using the ESO’s SPHERE instrument at the Very Large Telescope, a team of astronomer observed the planetary disc surrounding the star RX J1615 which lies in the constellation of Scorpius, 600 light-years from Earth. The observations show a complex system of concentric rings surrounding the young star, forming a shape resembling a titanic version of the rings that encircle Saturn. Such an intricate sculpting of rings in a protoplanetary disc has only been imaged a handful of times before. The central part of the image appears dark because SPHERE blocks out the light from the brilliant central star to reveal the much fainter structures surrounding it. Credit: ESO, J. de Boer et al.
This is RX J1615 which lies in the constellation of Scorpius, 600 light-years from Earth. The observations show a complex system of concentric rings surrounding the young star much like those encircling Saturn. The central part of the image appears dark because SPHERE blocks out the star’s light. Credit: ESO, J. de Boer et al.

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.

Concentric dust rings surrounds the star HD 97048 in the southern constellation of Chamaeleon. There also appears to be outflows of material to the left and right of the central star, which is hidden.  Credit: ESO, Chrisitan Ginski et. all

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.

8 Responses

  1. Steven Dean

    I am amazed by your blog, it is formatted so well. I like the pictures you used for the post, I am currently studying Astronomy and found this site. The formation of planets is even more interesting bedcause of the discovery of planet 9. One more thing, I love your pictures of the formation, I’d like to know where you had found them.

    1. astrobob

      Steven,
      Thank you. The photos were published earlier today in an article put out by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

  2. Larry Wilson

    I purchased a copy of your new book and even though I can’t travel from Illinois to Duluth for a signing, I will enjoy reading and using your book! I especially like the activities and will use this with star parties that I do during the winter in Arizona. I have been an amateur astronomer since 1958 and this is the first book of this kind I have ever seen. Great job with it and keep the blog going, its a daily read for me!

    1. astrobob

      Hi Larry,
      Thanks for getting a copy, and I hope you’ll enjoy it. I’m originally from Illinois. Grew up north of Chicago and attending the University of Illinois. Long ago I was a member of the Chicago Astronomical Society. It sounds like you’ve been doing astronomy for a long time. Yes, it’s that kind of a hobby, one that provides enjoyment for a lifetime.

  3. Deven Wallace

    It must be fasinating to know new planets are forming day by day, I’ve aways wondered how they are formed or where they come from? This blog pretty much sums up my understanding of planets and there creation, but there is still alot to learn.

    1. astrobob

      Thanks Deven. Amazing to think that although our solar system appears to be done with planet formation, others are only beginning.

  4. Tim Fleming

    Hi Bob,
    I have a question on fireballs. I have been fortunate to see two this year – both with easily observed fragmentation. Do the fragments generally result in meteorites?

    Thanks,
    Tim

    1. astrobob

      Hi Tim,
      Good question. Not necessarily. Fragmentation is fairly common in fireballs because most are the product of comets, which are friable by nature and prone to break apart when they enter the atmosphere. No meteorites originating from comets have been known to reach the ground, only those from asteroids, because the material is made of rock and more likely to hold together during a fall. Generally, if you see an exceptionally bright fireball (mag. -8 to -10 according to the American Meteor Society) it can potentially produce meteorites. Small fragments of brilliant asteroidal meteors can also break up off the main mass and survive the fall, leaving a trail or strewnfield of meteorites on the ground below the meteor’s path. So if you see a fragmenting fireball as bright as the full moon, if it’s cometary, it won’t produce meteorites, but if it’s from the asteroid belt, chances are it will.

Comments are closed.