Giant Planet May Be Lurking In ‘Poisonous’ Gas Around Beta Pictoris

A Saturn-mass planet might be lurking in the debris surrounding Beta Pictoris, new measurements of a debris field around the star shown. If this could be proven, this would be the second planet found around that star.

The planet would be sheparding a giant swarm of comets (some in front and some trailing behind the planet) that are smacking into each other as often as every five minutes, new observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) show. This is the leading explanation for a cloud of carbon monoxide gas visible in the array.

“Although toxic to us, carbon monoxide is one of many gases found in comets and other icy bodies,” stated Aki Roberge, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland who participated in the research. “In the rough-and-tumble environment around a young star, these objects frequently collide and generate fragments that release dust, icy grains and stored gases.”

ALMA captured millimeter-sized light from carbon monoxide and dust around Beta Pictoris, which is about 63 light-years from Earth (relatively close to our planet). The gas seems to be most prevalent in an area about 8 billion miles (13 kilometers) from the star — the equivalent distance of three times the length of Neptune’s location from the sun. The carbon monoxide cloud itself makes up about one-sixth the mass of Earth’s oceans.

Ultraviolet light from the star should be breaking up the carbon monoxide molecules within 100 years, so the fact there is so much gas indicates something must be replenishing it, the researchers noted. Their models showed that the comets would need to be destroyed every five minutes for this to happen (unless we are looking at the star at an unusual time).

While the researchers say they need more study to see how the gas is concentrated, their hypothesis is there is two clumps of gas and it is due to a big planet behaving similarly to what Jupiter does in our solar system. Thousands of asteroids follow behind and fly in front of Jupiter due to the planet’s massive gravity. In this more distant system, it’s possible that a gas giant planet would be doing the same thing with comets.

If the gas turns out to be in just one clump, however, another scenario would suggest two Mars-sized planets (icy ones) smashing into each other about half a million years ago. This “would account for the comet swarm, with frequent ongoing collisions among the fragments gradually releasing carbon monoxide gas,” NASA stated.

The research was published yesterday (March 6) in the journal Science and is led by Bill Dent, a researcher at the Joint ALMA Office in  Chile. You can read more information in press releases from NASA, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and European Southern Observatory.

Astronomers Catch a Galactic Threesome in the Act

An enormous and incredibly luminous distant galaxy has turned out to actually be three galaxies in the process of merging together, based on the latest observations from ALMA as well as the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. Located 13 billion light-years away, this galactic threesome is being seen near the very beginning of what astronomers call the “Cosmic Dawn,” a time when the Universe first became illuminated by stars.

“This exceedingly rare triple system, seen when the Universe was only 800 million years old, provides important insights into the earliest stages of galaxy formation during a period known as ‘Cosmic Dawn’ when the Universe was first bathed in starlight,” said Richard Ellis, professor of astronomy at Caltech and member of the research team. “Even more interesting, these galaxies appear poised to merge into a single massive galaxy, which could eventually evolve into something akin to the Milky Way.”

In the image above, infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope are shown in red, visible data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope are green, and ultraviolet data from Japan’s Subaru telescope are blue. First discovered in 2009, the object is named “Himiko” after a legendary queen of Japan.

The merging galaxies within Himiko are surrounded by a vast cloud of hydrogen and helium, glowing brightly from the galaxies’ powerful outpouring of energy.

What’s particularly intriguing to astronomers is the noted lack of heavier elements like carbon in the cloud.

“This suggests that the gas cloud around the galaxy is actually quite primitive in its composition,” Ellis states in an NRAO video, “and has not yet been enriched by the products of nuclear fusion in the stars in the triple galaxy system. And what this implies is that the system is much younger and potentially what we call primeval… a first-generation object that is being seen. If true that’s very very exciting.”

Further research of distant objects like Himiko with the new high-resolution capabilities of ALMA will help astronomers determine how the Universe’s first galaxies “turned on”… was it a relatively sudden event, or did it occur gradually over many millions of years?

Watch the full video from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory below:

The research team’s results have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: NASA/JPL press release and the NRAO.

Gorgeous Telescope Timelapse Makes You Feel Like You’re Standing In Chile

Lasers like this one, at the VLT in Paranal, help counteract the blurring effect of the atmosphere. Powerful arrays of much larger lasers could hide our presence from aliens. (ESO/Y. Beletsky)

As the chill of winter settles into the northern hemisphere, fantasies of down-south travel pervade a lot of people’s dreams. Well, here’s a virtual journey to warm climes for astronomy buffs: a beautiful, music-filled timelapse of several European Southern Observatory telescopes gazing at the heavens in Chile.

Uploaded in 2011 (but promoted this morning on ESO’s Twitter feed), the timelapse was taken by astrophotographers Stéphane Guisard (also an ESO engineer) and José Francisco Salgado (who is also an astronomer at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.) Telescopes include:

We’ve covered their work before on Universe Today. In 2009, Guisard  participated in GigaGalaxy Zoom, which produced a 360-degree panorama of the entire sky. He also released a 3-D view of several telescopes that same year. Also, Guisard and Salgado collaborated on another 2011 timelapse of the Very Large Telescope and nearby sites.

Supersonic Starbirth Bubble Glows In Image From Two Telescopes

Talk about birth in the fast lane. Fresh observations of HH 46/47 — an area well-known for hosting a baby star — demonstrate material from the star pushing against the surrounding gas at supersonic speeds.

“HH” stands for Herbig-Haro, a type of object created “when jets shot out by newborn stars collide with surrounding material, producing small, bright, nebulous regions,” NASA stated. It’s a little hard to see what’s inside these regions, however, as they’re clouded by debris (specifically, gas and dust).

The Spitzer space telescope (which looks in infrared) and the massive Chilean Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) are both designed to look through the stuff to see what’s within. Here’s what they’ve spotted:

– ALMA: The telescope is showing that the gas is moving apart faster than ever believed, which could have echoes on how the star cloud is forming generally. “In turn, the extra turbulence could have an impact on whether and how other stars might form in this gaseous, dusty, and thus fertile, ground for star-making,” NASA added.

Another view of HH 46/47 with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Credit: ESO/ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/H. Arce. Acknowledgements to Bo Reipurth
Another view of HH 46/47 with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Credit: ESO/ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/H. Arce. Acknowledgements to Bo Reipurth

– Spitzer: Two supersonic blobs are emerging from the star in the middle and pushing against the gas, creating the big bubbles you can see here. The right-aiming blob has a lot more material to push through than the left one, “offering a handy compare-and-contrast setup for how the outflows from a developing star interact with their surroundings,” NASA stated.

“Young stars like our sun need to remove some of the gas collapsing in on them to become stable, and HH 46/47 is an excellent laboratory for studying this outflow process,” stated Alberto Noriega-Crespo, a scientist at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology.

“Thanks to Spitzer, the HH 46/47 outflow is considered one of the best examples of a jet being present with an expanding bubble-like structure.”

The ALMA observations of HH 46/47 were first revealed in detail this summer, in an Astrophysical Journal publication.

Source: NASA

ALMA Peers Into Giant Black Hole Jets

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to observe what happens to a galaxy near a black hole? For all of us who remember that wonderful Disney movie, it would be a remarkable – if not hypnotic – experience. Now, thanks to the powerful observational tools of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), two international astronomy teams have had the opportunity to study the jets of black holes near their galactic cores and see just how they impact their neighborhood. The researchers have captured the best view so far of a molecular gas cloud surrounding a nearby, quiescent black hole and were gifted with a surprise look at the base of a massive jet near a distant one.

These aren’t lightweights. The black holes the astronomers are studying weigh in a several billion solar masses and make their homes at the center of nearly all the galaxies in the Universe – including the Milky Way. Once upon a time, these enigmatic galactic phenomena were busy creatures. They absorbed huge amounts of matter from their surroundings, shining like bright beacons. These early black holes thrust small amounts of the matter they took in through highly powerful jets, but their current counterparts aren’t quite as active. While things may have changed a bit with time, the correlation of black hole jets and their surroundings still play a crucial role in how galaxies evolve. In the very latest of studies, both published today in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, astronomers employed ALMA to investigate black hole jets at very different scales: a nearby and relatively quiet black hole in the galaxy NGC 1433 and a very distant and active object called PKS 1830-211.

“ALMA has revealed a surprising spiral structure in the molecular gas close to the center of NGC 1433,” says Françoise Combes (Observatoire de Paris, France), who is the lead author of the first paper. “This explains how the material is flowing in to fuel the black hole. With the sharp new observations from ALMA, we have discovered a jet of material flowing away from the black hole, extending for only 150 light-years. This is the smallest such molecular outflow ever observed in an external galaxy.”

Need feedback? Well, that’s exactly what this process is called. “Feedback” may enlighten us to the relationship between black hole mass and the mass of the surrounding galactic bulge. The black hole consumes gas and becomes active, but then it creates jets which purge gas from its proximity. This halts star formation and controls the growth of the central bulge. In PKS 1830-211, Ivan Marti-Vidal (Chalmers University of Technology, Onsala Space Observatory, Onsala, Sweden) and his team witnessed a supermassive black hole with a jet, “but a much brighter and more active one in the early universe. It is unusual because its brilliant light passes a massive intervening galaxy on its way to Earth, and is split into two images by gravitational lensing.”

Are supermassive black holes messy eaters? You bet. There have been occasions when a supermassive black hole will unexpectedly consume a staggering amount of mass which, in turn, turbo-charges the power of the jets and lights up the radiation output to the very pinnacle of energy output. This energy is emitted as gamma rays, the shortest wavelength and highest energy form of electromagnetic radiation. And now ALMA has, by chance, caught one of these events as it happened in PKS 1830-211.

“The ALMA observation of this case of black hole indigestion has been completely serendipitous. We were observing PKS 1830-211 for another purpose, and then we spotted subtle changes of color and intensity among the images of the gravitational lens. A very careful look at this unexpected behavior led us to the conclusion that we were observing, just by a very lucky chance, right at the time when fresh new matter entered into the jet base of the black hole,” says Sebastien Muller, a co-author of the second paper.

The main image, showing the nearby active galaxy NGC 1433, comes from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The coloured structures near the centre shown in the insert are from recent ALMA observations that have revealed a spiral shape, as well as an unexpected outflow, for the first time. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/NASA/ESA/F. Combes
The main image, showing the nearby active galaxy NGC 1433, comes from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The coloured structures near the centre shown in the insert are from recent ALMA observations that have revealed a spiral shape, as well as an unexpected outflow, for the first time. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/NASA/ESA/F. Combes
As with all astronomical observations, the key to discovery is confirmation. Did the ALMA findings show up on other telescopic observations? The answer is yes. Thanks to monitoring observations with NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, there was a definite gamma ray signature exactly where it should be. Whatever was responsible for the scaling up of radiation at ALMA’s long wavelengths was also responsible for making the light of the black hole jet flare impressively.

“This is the first time that such a clear connection between gamma rays and submillimeter radio waves has been established as coming from the real base of a black hole’s jet,” adds Sebastien Muller.

It isn’t the end of the story, however. It’s just the beginning. ALMA will continue to probe into the mysterious workings of supermassive black hole jets – both near and far. Combes and her investigative team are already observing close active galaxies with ALMA, and even a unique object cataloged as PKS 1830-211. The research will continue, and with it we may one day have answers to many questions.

“There is still a lot to be learned about how black holes can create these huge energetic jets of matter and radiation,” concludes Ivan Marti-Vidal. “But the new results, obtained even before ALMA was completed, show that it is a uniquely powerful tool for probing these jets — and the discoveries are just beginning!”

Original Story Source: ESO News Release.

Astronomers See Snow … In Space!

There’s an excellent chance of frost in this corner of the universe: astronomers have spotted a “snow line” in a baby solar system about 175 light-years away from Earth. The find is cool (literally and figuratively) in itself. More importantly, however, it could give us clues about how our own planet formed billions of years ago.

“[This] is extremely exciting because of what it tells us about the very early period in the history of our own solar system,” stated Chunhua Qi, a researcher with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who led the research.

“We can now see previously hidden details about the frozen outer reaches of another solar system, one that has much in common with our own when it was less than 10 million years old,” he added.

The real deal enhanced-color picture of TW Hydrae is below, courtesy of a newly completed telescope: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile. It is designed to look at grains and other debris around forming solar systems. This snow line is huge, stretching far beyond the equivalent orbit of Neptune in our own solar system. See the circle? That’s Neptune’s orbit. The green stuff is the snow line. Look just how far the green goes past the orbit.

The carbon monoxide line as seen by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope. The circle represents the equivalent orbit of Neptune when comparing it to our own solar system. Credit: Karin Oberg, Harvard University/University of Virginia
The carbon monoxide line on TW Hydrae as seen by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope. The circle represents the equivalent orbit of Neptune when comparing it to our own solar system. Credit: Karin Oberg, Harvard University/University of Virginia

Young stars are typically surrounded by a cloud of gas and debris that, astronomers believe, can in many cases form into planets given enough time. Snow lines form in young solar systems in areas where the heat of the star isn’t enough to melt the substance. Water is the first substance to freeze around dust grains, followed by carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide.

It’s hard to spot them: “Snow lines form exclusively in the relatively narrow central plane of a protoplanetary disk. Above and below this region, stellar radiation keeps the gases warm, preventing them from forming ice,” the astronomers stated. In areas where dust and gas are more dense, the substances are insulated and can freeze — but it’s difficult to see the snow through the gas.

In this case, astronomers were able to spot the carbon monoxide snow because they looked for diazenylium, a molecule that is broken up in areas of carbon monoxide gas. Spotting it is a “proxy” for spots where the CO froze out, the astronomers said.

Here are some more of the many reasons this is exciting to astronomers:

  • Snow could help dust grains form faster into rocks and eventually, planets because it coats the grain surface into something more stickable;
  • Carbon monoxide is a requirement to create methanol, considered a building block of complex molecules and life;
  • The snow was actually spotted with only a small portion of ALMA’s 66 antennas while it was still under construction. Now that ALMA is complete, scientists are already eager to see what the telescope will turn up the next time it gazes at the system.

Source: National Radio Astronomy Observatory

 

ALMA Spots a Nascent Stellar Monster

Even though it comprises over 99% of the mass of the Solar System (with Jupiter taking up most of the rest) our Sun is, in terms of the entire Milky Way, a fairly average star. There are lots of less massive stars than the Sun out there in the galaxy, as well as some real stellar monsters… and based on new observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, there’s about to be one more.

Early science observations with ALMA have provided astronomers with the best view yet of a monster star in the process of forming within a dark cloud of dust and gas. Located 11,000 light-years away, Spitzer Dark Cloud 335.579-0.292 is a stellar womb containing over 500 times the mass of the Sun — and it’s still growing. Inside this cloud is an embryonic star hungrily feeding on inwardly-flowing material, and when it’s born it’s expected to be at least 100 times the mass of our Sun… a true stellar monster.

The location of SDC 335.579-0.292 in the southern constellation of Norma (ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope)
The location of SDC 335.579-0.292 in the southern constellation of Norma (ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope)

The star-forming region is the largest ever found in our galaxy.

“The remarkable observations from ALMA allowed us to get the first really in-depth look at what was going on within this cloud,” said Nicolas Peretto of CEA/AIM Paris-Saclay, France, and Cardiff University, UK. “We wanted to see how monster stars form and grow, and we certainly achieved our aim! One of the sources we have found is an absolute giant — the largest protostellar core ever spotted in the Milky Way.”

Watch: What’s the Biggest Star in the Universe?

SDC 335.579-0.292 had already been identified with NASA’s Spitzer and ESA’s Herschel space telescopes, but it took the unique sensitivity of ALMA to observe in detail both the amount of dust present and the motion of the gas within the dark cloud, revealing the massive embryonic star inside.

“Not only are these stars rare, but their birth is extremely rapid and their childhood is short, so finding such a massive object so early in its evolution is a spectacular result.”

– Team member Gary Fuller, University of Manchester, UK

The image above, a combination of data acquired by both Spitzer and ALMA (see below for separate images) shows tendrils of infalling material flowing toward a bright center where the huge protostar is located. These observations show how such massive stars form — through a steady collapse of the entire cloud, rather than through fragmented clustering.

SDC 335.579-0.292 seen in different wavelengths of light.
SDC 335.579-0.292 seen in different wavelengths of light.

“Even though we already believed that the region was a good candidate for being a massive star-forming cloud, we were not expecting to find such a massive embryonic star at its center,” said Peretto. “This object is expected to form a star that is up to 100 times more massive than the Sun. Only about one in ten thousand of all the stars in the Milky Way reach that kind of mass!”

(Although, with at least 200 billion stars in the galaxy, that means there are still 20 million such giants roaming around out there!)

Read more on the ESO news release here.

Image credits: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/NASA/JPL-Caltech/GLIMPSE

Should This Alien World Even Exist? This Young Disk Could Challenge Planet-Formation Theories

Take a close look at the blurry image above. See that gap in the cloud? That could be a planet being born some 176 light-years away from Earth. It’s a small planet, only 6 to 28 times Earth’s mass.

That’s not even the best part.

This alien world, if we can confirm it, shouldn’t be there according to conventional planet-forming theory.

The gap in the image above — taken by the Hubble Space Telescope — probably arose when a planet under construction swept through the dust and debris in its orbit, astronomers said.

That’s not much of a surprise (at first blush) given what we think we know about planet formation. You start with a cloud of debris and gas swirling around a star, then gradually the bits and pieces start colliding, sticking together and growing bigger into small rocks, bigger ones and eventually, planets or gas giant planet cores.

But there’s something puzzling astronomers this time around: this planet is a heck of a long way from its star, TW Hydrae, about twice Pluto’s distance from the sun. Given that alien systems’ age, that world shouldn’t have formed so quickly.

An illustration of TW Hydrae's disk in comparison with that of Earth's solar system. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)
An illustration of TW Hydrae’s disk in comparison with that of Earth’s solar system. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

Astronomers believe that Jupiter took about 10 million years to form at its distance away from the sun. This planet near TW Hydrae should take 200 times longer to form because the alien world is moving slower, and has less debris to pick up.

But something must be off, because TW Hydrae‘s system is believed to be only 8 million years old.

“There has not been enough time for a planet to grow through the slow accumulation of smaller debris. Complicating the story further is that TW Hydrae is only 55 percent as massive as our sun,” NASA stated, adding it’s the first time we’ve seen a gap so far away from a low-mass star.

The lead researcher put it even more bluntly: “Typically, you need pebbles before you can have a planet. So, if there is a planet and there is no dust larger than a grain of sand farther out, that would be a huge challenge to traditional planet formation models,” stated John Debes, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Protoplanet Hypothesis
Like a raindrop forming in a cloud, a star forms in a diffuse gas cloud in deep space. As the star grows, its gravitational pull draws in dust and gas from the surrounding molecular cloud to form a swirling disk called a “protoplanetary disk.” This disk eventually further consolidates to form planets, moons, asteroids and comets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

At this point, you would suppose the astronomers are seriously investigating other theories. One alternative brought up in the press release: perhaps part of the disc collapsed due to gravitational instability. If that is the case, a planet could come to be in only a few thousand years, instead of several million.

“If we can actually confirm that there’s a planet there, we can connect its characteristics to measurements of the gap properties,” Debes stated. “That might add to planet formation theories as to how you can actually form a planet very far out.”

A rare double transit of Jupiter's moon Ganymede (top) and Io on Jan. 3, 2013. Here, the sun is shining from the left causing shadows cast by the moons to fall onto the planet's cloud tops. Credit: Damian Peach
A rare double transit of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede (top) and Io on Jan. 3, 2013. Here, the sun is shining from the left causing shadows cast by the moons to fall onto the planet’s cloud tops. Credit: Damian Peach

There’s a trick with the “direct collapse” theory, though: astronomers believe it takes a bunch of matter that is one to two times more massive than Jupiter before a collapse can occur to form a planet.

Recall that this world is no more than 28 times the mass of Earth, as best as we can figure. Well, Jupiter itself is 318 times more massive than Earth.

There are also intriguing results about the gap. Chile’s Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) — which is designed to look at dusty regions around young stars — found that the dust grains in this system, orbiting nearby the gap, are still smaller than the size of a grain of sand.

Astronomers plan to use ALMA and the James Webb Space Telescope, which should launch in 2018, to get a better look. In the meantime, the results will be published in the June 14 edition of the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: HubbleSite

ALMA and the Comet Factory

“Ooompah, loompah, roopity rust… ALMA finds comets hiding in dust.” According to many studies over recent years, astronomers are aware planets seem to be everywhere around stars. However, just how these rocky bodies, including comets, are created is something of an enigma. Now, thanks to one sweet telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), science has taken a big step forward in understanding how minuscule dust grains in a protoplanetary disk can one day evolve into a larger format.

A little less than 400 light years from Earth is a youthful solar system cataloged as Oph IRS 48. In images taken of its outer perimeters, astronomers have picked up a vital clue in its swirling masses of dust – a crescent-shaped region dubbed a “dust trap”. Researchers feel this area may be a protective cocoon which allows rocky formations to take shape. Why is such a region important? It’s the smash-factor. When astronomers try to model dust to rocky formations, they have found the particles self-destruct… either by crashing into each other, or being drawn into the central star. In order for them to progress past a certain size, they simply must have an area of protection to allow them to grow.

“There is a major hurdle in the long chain of events that leads from tiny dust grains to planet-sized objects,” said Til Birnstiel, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and co-author on the paper published in the journal Science. “In computer models of planet formation, dust grains must grow from submicron sizes to objects up to ten times the mass of the Earth in just a few million years. But once particles grow larger enough, they begin to pick up speed and either collide, sending them back to square one, or slowly drift inward, thwarting further growth.”

So where can a newborn planet, comet or asteroid hide? Nienke van der Marel, a PhD student at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, and lead author of the article, was using ALMA along with her co-workers, to take a close look at Oph IRS 48 and discovered a torus of gas with a central hole. This absence of dust particles was very different from earlier results picked up on ESO’s Very Large Telescope.

“At first the shape of the dust in the image came as a complete surprise to us,” says van der Marel. “Instead of the ring we had expected to see, we found a very clear cashew-nut shape! We had to convince ourselves that this feature was real, but the strong signal and sharpness of the ALMA observations left no doubt about the structure. Then we realised what we had found.”

A surprise? You bet. What the team uncovered was a region where large dust grains remained captive and could continue to gain mass as more and more grains collided and melded together. Here was the “dust trap” which theorists predicted.

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So what makes it up? To keep the dust grains together and forming requires a vortex – an area of high pressure to protect them. To form this vortex, there needs to be a large object present, either a companion star or a gas-giant. Like a boat sluicing through algae-filled waters, the secondary object in the planetary disk would clear a path in its wake, producing the critical eddies and vortices needed to fashion the dust trap. While previous studies of Oph IRS 48 uncovered a rigid ring of carbon monoxide gas combined with dust, there was no observed “trap”. However, that doesn’t mean the observation was negative. Astronomers also uncovered a gap between the inner and outer portions of the solar system – a clue to the presence of the necessary large body.

The conditions were right for a possible dust trap. Enter ALMA. Now the researchers were able to see both the gas and larger dust grains at the same time. These new observations led to a discovery no other telescope had yet revealed… a lopsided bulge in the outer portion of the disk.

As van der Marel explains: “It’s likely that we are looking at a kind of comet factory as the conditions are right for the particles to grow from millimetre to comet size. The dust is not likely to form full-sized planets at this distance from the star. But in the near future ALMA will be able to observe dust traps closer to their parent stars, where the same mechanisms are at work. Such dust traps really would be the cradles for new-born planets.”

As larger particles migrate towards the areas of higher pressure, the dust trap takes shape. To validate their findings the researchers employed computer modeling to show that a high pressure region could arise from the motion of the gas at the opening edges. It matches with the observation of the Oph IRS 48 disc.

“The combination of modelling work and high quality observations of ALMA makes this a unique project”, says Cornelis Dullemond from the Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Heidelberg, Germany, who is an expert on dust evolution and disc modelling, and a member of the team. “Around the time that these observations were obtained, we were working on models predicting exactly these kinds of structures: a very lucky coincidence.”

“This structure we see with ALMA could be scaled down to represent what may be happening in the inner solar system where more Earth-like rocky planets would form,” said Birnstiel. “In the case of these observations, however, we may be seeing something analogous to the formation of our Sun’s Kuiper Belt or Oort Cloud, the region of our solar system where comets are believed to originate.”

Like that dream factory of our childhood, ALMA is still under construction. These unique observations were taken with the ALMA Band 9 receivers – European-made instrumentation which permits ALMA to deliver its sharpest, most detailed images so far.

“These observations show that ALMA is capable of delivering transformational science, even with less than half of the full array in use,” says Ewine van Dishoeck of the Leiden Observatory, who has been a major contributor to the ALMA project for more than 20 years. “The incredible jump in both sensitivity and image sharpness in Band 9 gives us the opportunity to study basic aspects of planet formation in ways that were simply not possible before.”

Original Story Source: ESO News Release. For further reading: NRAO News Release.

Early Galaxies Churned Out Stars Like Crazy

Talk about an assembly line! Some early-stage galaxies created stars thousands of times faster than our Milky Way does today, according to new research. And it’s puzzling astronomers.

“We want to understand how and why these galaxies are forming stars at such incredibly fast rates, so soon after the Big Bang,” stated Scott Chapman of Dalhousie University, one of the researchers behind the discovery. “This could partially answer how our own galaxy, the Milky Way, was born billions of years ago.”

This is just a hint of the high-definition view we’ll receive from Chile’s Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), its astronomers promise, since the array of dozens of telescopes was officially inaugurated this spring. (ALMA has been working for years, but slowly adding telescopes and definition as it goes.)

There were actually three papers released today about ALMA. So what did the observatory find out this time? Here’s the nut graf:

Gravitational microlensing method requires that you have two stars that lie on a straight line in relation to us here on Earth. Then the light from the background star is amplified by the gravity of the foreground star, which thus acts as a magnifying glass.
Gravitational microlensing method requires that you have two stars that lie on a straight line in relation to us here on Earth. Then the light from the background star is amplified by the gravity of the foreground star, which thus acts as a magnifying glass.

The observed galaxies are “gravitationally lensed”. Galaxies are so massive that they can bend light from other galaxies, if put in the right spot with respect to Earth. We’ve seen this effect over and over again with the Hubble Space Telescope, but observations are less well-known in the millimeter spectrum of light in which ALMA observes. “Models of lens geometries in the sample indicate that the background objects are ultra-luminous infrared galaxies, powered by extreme bursts of star formation,” stated a Nature paper on the discovery.

These galaxies are further away than we thought. By measuring the time it takes light from carbon monoxide molecules to reach us, the astronomers concluded these galaxies are much further away than previously measured, with some reaching as far back as 12 billion light-years away. (That’s just 1.7 billion years after the Big Bang created the universe.)

– The galaxies put star creation on fast-forward. Looking back that far is like looking in a time machine — we can see things that were happening only 1 billion years after the Big Bang. At the time, those galaxies were as bright as 40 trillion suns and created new stars at an extreme rate of 4,000 suns per year. (That, by the way, is 4,000 times faster than what our own galaxy does.)

You can read more about these results in Nature and the Astrophysical Journal (here and here.)

Source: Canadian Astronomical Society (CASCA)