ALMA Captures Never-Before-Seen Details of Protoplanetary Disk

Article written: 1 Apr , 2016
Updated: 15 Apr , 2016
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ALMA’s best image of a protoplanetary disc to date. This picture of the nearby young star TW Hydrae reveals the classic rings and gaps that signify planets are in formation in this system.

ALMA’s best image of a protoplanetary disk to date. This picture of the nearby young star TW Hydrae reveals the classic rings and gaps that signify planets are in formation in this system. Credit: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA); B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

TW Hydrae is a special star. Located 175 light years from Earth in the constellation Hydra the Water Snake, it sits at the center of a dense disk of gas and dust that astronomers think resembles our solar system when it was just 10 million years old. The disk is incredibly clear in images made using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, which employs 66 radio telescopes sensitive to light just beyond that of infrared.  Spread across more than 9 miles (15 kilometers), the ALMA array acts as a gigantic single telescope that can make images 10 times sharper than even the Hubble Space Telescope.

This photo of the ALMA antennas on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile, more than 16,000 feet (5000 meters) above sea level, was taken a few days before the start of ALMA Early Science and shows only one cluster of the 66 dishes. ALMA views the sky in "submillimeter" light, a slice of the spectrum invisible to the human eye that lies between infrared and radio waves. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/W. Garnier (ALMA)

This photo of the ALMA antennas on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile, more than 16,000 feet (5000 meters) above sea level, was taken a few days before the start of ALMA Early Science and shows only one cluster of the 66 dishes. ALMA views the sky in submillimeter light, a slice of the spectrum invisible to the human eye that lies between infrared and radio waves. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/W. Garnier (ALMA)

Astronomers everywhere point their telescopes at TW Hydrae because it’s the closest infant star in the sky. With an age of between 5 and 10 million years, it’s not even running on hydrogen fusion yet, the process by which stars convert hydrogen into helium to produce energy. TW Hydrae shines from the energy released as it contracts through gravity. Fusion and official stardom won’t begin until it’s dense enough and hot enough for fusion to fire up in its belly.

ALMA image of the planet-forming disk around the young, sun-like star TW Hydrae. The inset image (upper right) zooms in on the gap nearest to the star, which is at the same distance as the Earth is from the sun, and may show an infant version of our home planet emerging from the dust and gas. The additional concentric light and dark features represent other planet-forming regions farther out in the disk. Credit: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

ALMA image of the planet-forming disk around the young, sun-like star TW Hydrae. The inset image (upper right) zooms in on the gap nearest to the star, which is at the same distance as the Earth is from the sun, and may show an infant version of our home planet emerging from the dust and gas. The additional concentric light and dark features represent other planet-forming regions farther out in the disk. Credit: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

We see most protoplanetary disks at various angles, but TW’s has a face-on orientation as seen from Earth, giving astronomers a rare, undistorted view of the complete disk around the star. The new images show amazing detail, revealing a series of concentric bright rings of dust separated by dark gaps. There’s even indications that a planet with an Earth-like orbit has begun clearing an orbit.

“Previous studies with optical and radio telescopes confirm that TW Hydrae hosts a prominent disk with features that strongly suggest planets are beginning to coalesce,” said Sean Andrews with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA and lead author on a paper published today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Blurry as it is, the detail here is staggering. It shows a gap about 93 million miles from the central starsuggesting that a planet with a similar orbit to Earth is forming there. Credit: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA); B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

The model (at left) of a protoplanetary disk shows a newly forming star at the center of a saucer-shaped dust cloud. At right, a close up of TW Hydrae taken by ALMA shows a gap about 93 million miles from the central star, suggesting that a planet with a similar orbit to Earth is forming there. Credit: (Left: L. Calcada). Right: S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA); B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Pronounced gaps that show up in the photos above are located at 1.9 and 3.7 billion miles (3-6 billion kilometers) from the central star, similar to the average distances from the sun to Uranus and Pluto in the solar system. They too are likely to be the results of particles that came together to form planets, which then swept their orbits clear of dust and gas to sculpt the remaining material into well-defined bands. ALMA picks up the faint emission of submillimeter light emitted by dust grains in the disk, revealing details as small as 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) or the distance of Earth from the sun

This image compares the size of the solar system with HL Tauri and its surrounding protoplanetary disc. Although the star is much smaller than the Sun, the disc around HL Tauri stretches out to almost three times as far from the star as Neptune is from the Sun. Credit:ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

This image compares the size of the solar system with HL Tauri and its surrounding protoplanetary disc. Although the star is much smaller than the Sun, the disc around HL Tauri stretches out to almost three times as far from the star as Neptune is from the Sun. Credit:ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

“This is the highest spatial resolution image ever of a protoplanetary disk from ALMA, and that won’t be easily beaten in the future!” said Andrews.

Earlier ALMA observations of another system, HL Tauri, show that even younger protoplanetary disks — a mere 1 million years old — look remarkably similar.  By studying the older TW Hydrae disk, astronomers hope to better understand the evolution of our own planet and the prospects for similar systems throughout the Milky Way.

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