Astronomers Propose a 14-Meter Infrared Space Telescope

An artist's illustration of the SALTUS Observatory concept. SALTUS is a Far-IR space telescope that will open a new window into the cosmos. Image Credit: NASA

The Universe wants us to understand its origins. Every second of every day, it sends us a multitude of signals, each one a clue to a different aspect of the cosmos. But the Universe is the original Trickster, and its multitude of signals is an almost unrecognizable cacophony of light, warped, shifted, and stretched during its long journey through the expanding Universe.

Continue reading “Astronomers Propose a 14-Meter Infrared Space Telescope”

This is the Largest Planet-Forming Disk Ever Seen

The center of this composite image shows IRAS 23077, likely the largest planet-forming disk ever seen, which looks like a giant cosmic butterfly. Credit: Radio: SAO/ASIAA/SMA/K. Monsch et al; Optical: Pan-STARRS

Roughly 1,000 light-years from Earth, there is a cosmic structure known as IRAS 23077+6707 (IRAS 23077) that resembles a giant butterfly. Ciprian T. Berghea, an astronomer with the U.S. Naval Observatory, originally observed the structure in 2016 using the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS). To the surprise of many, the structure has remained unchanged for years, leading some to question what IRAS 2307 could be.

Recently, two international teams of astronomers made follow-up observations using the Submillimeter Array at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Hawaii to better understand IRAS 2307. In a series of papers describing their findings, the teams revealed that IRAS 23077 is actually a young star surrounded by a massive protoplanetary debris disk, the largest ever observed. This discovery offers new insight into planet formation and the environments where this takes place.

Continue reading “This is the Largest Planet-Forming Disk Ever Seen”

JWST Uses “Interferometry Mode” to Reveal Two Protoplanets Around a Young Star

Astronomers used the JWST's interferometry mode to study the PDS 70 extrasolar system. Image Credit: Blakely et al. 2024.

The JWST is flexing its muscles with its interferometry mode. Researchers used it to study a well-known extrasolar system called PDS 70. The goal? To test the interferometry mode and see how it performs when observing a complex target.

Continue reading “JWST Uses “Interferometry Mode” to Reveal Two Protoplanets Around a Young Star”

Webb Joins the Hunt for Protoplanets

This artist’s impression shows the formation of a gas giant planet embedded in the disk of dust and gas in the ring of dust around a young star. A University of Michigan study aimed the James Webb Space Telescope at a protoplanetary disk surrounding a protostar called SAO 206462, hoping to find a gas giant planet in the act of forming. Image credit: ESO/L. Calçada

We can’t understand what we can’t clearly see. That fact plagues scientists who study how planets form. Planet formation happens inside a thick, obscuring disk of gas and dust. But when it comes to seeing through that dust to where nascent planets begin to take shape, astronomers have a powerful new tool: the James Webb Space Telescope.

Continue reading “Webb Joins the Hunt for Protoplanets”

Webb Finds Hints of a Third Planet at PDS 70

An artist's illustration of the PDS 70 system, not to scale. The two planets are clearing a gap in the circumstellar disk as they form. As they accrete in-falling material, the heat makes them glow. Image Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory/Adam Makarenko

The exoplanet census now stands at 5,599 confirmed discoveries in 4,163 star systems, with another 10,157 candidates awaiting confirmation. So far, the vast majority of these have been detected using indirect methods, including Transit Photometry (74.4%) and Radial Velocity measurements (19.4%). Only nineteen (or 1.2%) were detected via Direct Imaging, a method where light emitted or reflected from an exoplanet’s atmosphere or surface is used to detect and characterize it. Thanks to the latest generation of high-contrast and high-angular resolution instruments, this is starting to change.

This includes the James Webb Space Telescope and its sophisticated mirrors and advanced infrared imaging suite. Using data obtained by Webb‘s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), astronomers within the MIRI mid-INfrared Disk Survey (MINDS) survey recently studied a very young variable star (PDS 70) about 370 light-years away with two confirmed protoplanets. After examining the system and its extended protoplanetary disk, they found evidence of a third possible protoplanet orbiting the star. These observations could help advance our understanding of planetary systems that are still in the process of formation.

Continue reading “Webb Finds Hints of a Third Planet at PDS 70”

Massive Stars Have the Power to Shape Solar Systems

This image is a Hubble image of the inner regions in the Orion Nebula, with a JWST image of a protoplanetary disk named d203-506. The disk is close enough to the massive Trapezium Cluster stars that their UV radiation is shaping the planet-forming process in the disk. Image Credit: NASA/STSCI/RICE UNIV./C.O'DELL ET AL / O. BERNÉ, I. SCHROTTER, PDRS4ALL

Stars shape their solar systems. It’s true of ours, and it’s true of others. But for some massive stars, their power to shape still-forming systems is fateful and final.

Continue reading “Massive Stars Have the Power to Shape Solar Systems”

Some Young Planets Are Flattened Smarties, not Spheres.

This image from supercomputer simulations shows how some exoplanets form as 'flattened Smarties' rather than spheres. It shows the same planet from the top (left) and the side (right.) The images are from supercomputer simulations of planetary formation. Image Credit: Fenton and Stamatellos 2024.

One of contemporary astronomy’s most pressing questions concerns planet formation. We can see more deeply than ever into very young solar systems where planets are taking shape in the disks around young stars. But our view is still clouded by all the gas and dust in these young systems.

The picture of planet formation just got cloudier with the discovery that some young planets are shaped like flattened candies rather than spheres.

Continue reading “Some Young Planets Are Flattened Smarties, not Spheres.”

Three Iron Rings Around A Star Show Where Planets are Forming

Observations with the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) found various silicate compounds and potentially iron, substances we also find in large amounts in the solar system's rocky planets. Credit: Jenry

Researchers using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) have found three iron rings around a young star about 500 light-years away. The rings indicate that planets are forming. What can these rings tell us about how Earth and the other planets in our Solar System formed?

Continue reading “Three Iron Rings Around A Star Show Where Planets are Forming”

Webb Finds Icy Complex Organic Molecules Around Protostars: Ethanol, Methane, Formaldehyde, Formic Acid and Much More

Astronomers have used JWST to study the environments around 30 young protostars and found a vast collection of icy organic molecules. A recent survey identified methane, sulfur dioxide, ethanol, formaldehyde, formic acid, and many more. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

In the quest to understand how and where life might arise in the galaxy, astronomers search for its building blocks. Complex Organic Molecules (COMs) are some of those blocks, and they include things like formaldehyde and acetic acid, among many others. The JWST has found some of these COMs around young protostars. What does this tell astronomers?

Continue reading “Webb Finds Icy Complex Organic Molecules Around Protostars: Ethanol, Methane, Formaldehyde, Formic Acid and Much More”

ALMA Takes Next-Level Images of a Protoplanetary Disk

This ALMA image of the young star HL Tauri shows rings of dust surrounding the star. The line patterns show the orientation of polarized light. It's the deepest dust polarization image of any protoplanetary disk captured thus far, revealing details about the dust grains in the disk. Credit: NSF/AUI/NRAO/B. Saxton/Stephens et al.

The ESO’s Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is perched high in the Chilean Andes. ALMA is made of 66 high-precision antennae that all work together to observe light just between radio and infrared. Its specialty is cold objects, and in recent years, it has taken some stunning and scientifically illuminating images of protoplanetary disks and the planets forming in them.

But its newest image supersedes them all.

Continue reading “ALMA Takes Next-Level Images of a Protoplanetary Disk”