SPHERE Snaps Stunning Photos Of Budding Solar Systems

This spectacular image from European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) shows the dusty disc around the young star IM Lupi in finer detail than ever before. New images show a bizarre variety of shapes, sizes and structures, including the likely effects of planets still in the process of forming. The gray dot is the location of the central star, the light of which has been blocked. ESO/H. Avenhaus et al./E. Sissa et al./DARTT-S and SHINE collaborations

What makes a planet different from a star? A star shines generates its own light by fusing hydrogen atoms in its core. The energy escapes the star from its surface as heat and light. Planets are too small burn elements. They may heat up but they don’t shine. Instead, a planet is visible by the light it reflects from its host sun. Most searches for planets around stars other than the sun don’t photograph planets directly but instead record the dip in a star’s light when an orbiting planet passes in front.

Look at the gear you need for the job! This is a detailed view of the SPHERE optical bench is shown with the main subsystems clearly visible. SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch) is installed the Very Large Telescope; it primary use is to take direct photos of planets larger than Jupiter around nearby stars. ESO

Without some way to block the overwhelming light of a host sun, any planet(s) would be hopelessly swamped by its light. Enter SPHERE, a new instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile that allows astronomers to suppress the brilliant light of nearby stars and obtain a better view of the regions surrounding them including giant exoplanets and a wild assortment of dusty disks in which they lurk.

Some of the disks  contain bright rings, some dark rings, and some even resemble hamburgers. They also differ dramatically in appearance depending on their orientation in the sky — from circular face-on discs to narrow discs seen almost edge-on.

New images from the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope are revealing the dusty disks surrounding nearby young stars in greater detail than previously achieved. Our own solar system looked similar to these during its formation 4.5 billion years ago. While SPHERE can take pictures of giant exoplanets, it still can’t magnify them enough to see them as disks the way you and I would see Jupiter as a disk through a telescope.  ESO

SPHERE’s primary task is to use direct imaging to discover and study giant extrasolar planets orbiting nearby stars. But it also turns out to be one of the best tools ever made to snap images of the dusty disks around young stars, where planets may be forming. It’s thought that our own solar system and its family of planets, comets and asteroids grew from such a disk (or series of rings in a disk), so studying disks around other stars will help astronomers understand whether planets are present and how they form.

Artist’s conception of the dust and gas surrounding a newly formed planetary system. Planetesimals — small, solid objects within the individual rings — is thought to have gathered into the planets. NASA

Many of the stars in the photo panel are very young — less than 10 million years old — called T Tauri stars that vary in brightness as they ultimately settle down to lead stable lives like the sun. The disks around these stars contain gas, dust, and planetesimals, the building blocks of planets. And most wonderfully, they hint at what our own solar system may have looked like in the early stages of its formation more than 4.5 billion years ago.

The distances of the targets ranged from 230 to 550 light-years away or relatively close to Earth. Even then, it’s been challenging to obtain good images of the faint reflected light from disks, since they’re outshone by the dazzling light of their parent stars.

Compared to a star, a human lifetime is evanescent — here and gone in an instant. The only way we can come to understand the birth, evolution and death of something as long-live as a star is to look around the universe at lots of stars in all the different stages of their lives, then patch those stories together into a quilt of knowledge. SPHERE is not only helping us make sense of but visualize how it all began.

2 Responses

  1. Richard Keen

    I have to say the hamburgers are my favorites, although MY Lup looks more like a moon pie.
    Now, if one resembled a pierogi (or a pasty up your way, ya) I’d really go for it, but I think that shape would be dynamically unstable.
    Great photos – thanks for posting!

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