Astronomers Image 62 Newly-Forming Planetary Systems

Planet-forming discs in three clouds of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO.

Astronomers using the Very Large Telescope in Chile have now completed one of the largest surveys ever to hunt for planet-forming discs. They were able to find dozens of dusty regions around young stars, directly imaging the swirling gas and dust which hints at the locations of these new worlds.

Just like the wide variety in the types of exoplanets that have been discovered, these new data and stunning images show how protoplanetary systems are surprisingly diverse, with different sizes and shapes of disks.

In research presented in three new papers, researchers imaged 86 young stars and found 62 of them had a wide range of star-forming regions surrounding them. The astronomers say this study provides a wealth of data and unique insights into how planets arise in different regions of our galaxy.

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Astronomers are Getting Really Good at Weighing Baby Supermassive Black Holes

Illustration of an active quasar. New research shows that SMBHs eat rapidly enough to trigger them. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

In the 1970s, astronomers deduced that the persistent radio source coming from the center of our galaxy was actually a supermassive black hole (SMBH). This black hole, known today as Sagittarius A*, is over 4 million solar masses and is detectable by the radiation it emits in multiple wavelengths. Since then, astronomers have found that SMBHs reside at the center of most massive galaxies, some of which are far more massive than our own! Over time, astronomers observed relationships between the properties of galaxies and the mass of their SMBHs, suggesting that the two co-evolve.

Using the GRAVITY+ instrument at the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI), a team from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) recently measured the mass of an SMBH in SDSS J092034.17+065718.0. At a distance of about 11 billion light-years from our Solar System, this galaxy existed when the Universe was just two billion years old. To their surprise, they found that the SMBH weighs in at a modest 320 million solar masses, which is significantly under-massive compared to the mass of its host galaxy. These findings could revolutionize our understanding of the relationship between galaxies and the black holes residing at their centers.

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The Extremely Large Telescope’s Dome is on the Move

A webcam image of the construction of the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) located on Cerro Armazones in the Chilean Atacama Desert, on January 29, 2024. Credit: ESO.

Construction of the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) reached a milestone, with the structure of the dome completed just enough where engineers were able to rotate the dome’s skeleton for the first time.

ESO released a timelapse video this week of the dome’s movement, sped up from the actual snail’s pace of 1 centimeter per second. When the telescope is completed – currently set for sometime in 2028 — the rotation of the dome will allow the telescope to track objects in the night sky over the Chilean Atacama desert. The final operating speed will be at pace of 5 kilometers per hour.

Take note of the size of the humans moving about on the video. They appear like tiny ants compared to the immense size of the aptly named ELT.

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This Brown Dwarf is 2,000 Degrees Hotter Than the Sun

exoplanet hot jupiter transiting its star
This artist’s impression shows an ultra-hot exoplanet as it is about to transit in front of its host star. Credit: ESO

Astronomers have discovered an intense binary star system located about 1,400 light years away. It contains a brown dwarf with 80 times the mass of Jupiter which is bound closely with an incredibly hot white dwarf star. Observations have shown the brown dwarf is tidally locked to the white dwarf, allowing the daytime surface temperatures on the brown dwarf to reach 8,000 Kelvin (7,700 Celsius, 14,000 Fahrenheit) — which is much hotter than the surface of the Sun, which is about 5,700 K (5,427 C, 9,800 F). The brown dwarf’s nightside, on the other hand, is about 6,000 degrees K cooler.

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The Biggest Telescope in the World is Half Built

This image, taken in late June 2023, shows a night view of the construction site of ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope at Cerro Armazones, in Chile's Atacama Desert. Credit: ESO.

The European Southern Observatory continues to build the largest telescope in the world, the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). Construction of the telescope began in 2014 with flattening the top of a mountain named Cerro Armazones in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

ESO just announced that progress on construction has crossed the 50% mark.  The remaining work should take another five years. When it finally comes online in 2028, the telescope will have a 39-meter (128 ft) primary mirror of 798 hexagonal segments, making it the largest telescope in the world for visible and infrared light. The new telescope should help to answer some of the outstanding questions about our Universe, such as how the first stars and galaxies formed, and perhaps even be able to take direct images of extrasolar planets.  

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Warm Carbon Increased Suddenly in the Early Universe. Made by the First Stars?

While previous studies have suggested a rise in warm carbon, much larger samples – the basis of the new study – were needed to provide statistics to accurately measure the rate of this growth.

According to the most widely-accepted model of cosmology, the Universe began roughly 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. As the Universe cooled, the fundamental laws of physics (the electroweak force, the strong nuclear force, and gravity) and the first hydrogen atoms formed. By 370,000 years after the Big Bang, the Universe was permeated by neutral hydrogen and very few photons (the Cosmic Dark Ages). During the “Epoch of Reionization” that followed, the first stars and galaxies formed, reoinizing the neutral hydrogen and causing the Universe to become transparent.

For astronomers, the Epoch of Reionization still holds many mysteries, like when certain heavy elements formed. This includes the element carbon, a key ingredient in the formation of planets, an important element in organic processes, and the basis for life as we know it. According to a new study by the ARC Center of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3D), it appears that triply-ionized carbon (C iv) existed far sooner than previously thought. Their findings could have drastic implications for our understanding of cosmic evolution.

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A Very Young Star is Forming Near the Milky Way's Supermassive Black Hole

Artist's impression of a young, massive star orbiting Sagittarius A*. Credit: University of Cologne

Since the 1930s, physicists and radio engineer Karl Jansky reported discovering a persistent radio source coming from the center of our galaxy. This source came to be known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), and by the 1970s, astronomers determined that it was a supermassive black hole (SMBH) roughly four million times the mass of our Sun. Since then, astronomers have used increasingly-advanced radio telescopes to study Sgr A* and its surrounding environment. This has led to many exotic discoveries, such as the many “Stars stars” and gaseous “G objects” that orbit it.

The study of these objects and how the powerful gravity of Sgr A* has allowed scientists to test the laws of physics under the most extreme conditions. In a recent study, an international team of researchers led by the University of Cologne made a startling discovery. Based on data collected by multiple observatories, they observed what appears to be a newly-formed star (X3a) in the vicinity of Sgr A*. This discovery raises significant questions about how young stellar objects (YSOs) can form and survive so close to an SMBH, where they should be torn apart by violent gravitational forces.

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Astronomers Suspected There Should Be a Planet Here, and Then They Took a Picture of it

Direct images of AF Lep b, acquired by the SPHERE instrument on the VLT. Credit: ESO/Paranal Observatory

To date, astronomers have confirmed 5,272 exoplanets in 3,943 systems using a variety of detection methods. Of these, 1,834 are Neptune-like, 1,636 are gas giants (Jupiter-sized or larger), 1,602 are rocky planets several times the size and mass of Earth (Super-Earths), and 195 have been Earth-like. With so many exoplanets available for study (and next-generation instruments optimized for the task), the process is shifting from discovery to characterization. And discoveries, which are happening regularly, are providing teasers of what astronomers will likely see in the near future.

For example, two international teams of astronomers independently discovered a gas giant several times the mass of Jupiter orbiting a Sun-like star about 87.5 light-years from Earth. In a series of new papers that appeared in Astronomy & Astrophysics, the teams report the detection of a Super-Jupiter orbiting AF Leporis (AF Lep b) using a combination of astrometry and direct imaging. The images they acquired using the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch instrument (SPHERE) have since become the ESO’s Picture of the Week.

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Need a Project? You can Build a Paper Model of the Extremely Large Telescope

Paper model of the Extremely Large Telescope. Credit: ESO

The Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) will be the world’s largest optical/near-infrared telescope. It is under construction on top of a mountain named Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. Now you can build your own slightly smaller, incredibly lower cost version of your own ELT – using paper.

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Astronomers Have Found Two Temperate Super-Earths Orbiting a Nearby Red Dwarf

The telescopes of the SPECULOOS Southern Observatory gaze out into the stunning night sky over the Atacama Desert, Chile. ©ESO/P.Holárek

A team of astronomers has found two Super-Earths orbiting a red dwarf about 114 light-years away. The star, named LP 890-9, is the second coolest star found that hosts planets. Both the planets are likely temperate, and one of them “… is the second-most favourable habitable-zone terrestrial planet known so far,” according to the paper presenting the results.

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