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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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JWST Follows Neon Signs Toward New Thinking on Planet Formation

This artist's illustration shows the young star SZ Chamaeleontis (SZ Cha). SZ Cha is surrounded by a protoplanetary disk of gas and dust. Planets may form in the disk, but they're running out of time. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Ralf Crawford (STScI)

Everyone knows that the James Webb Space Telescope is a ground-breaking infrared space telescope that’s helping us better understand the cosmos. The JWST’s discerning infrared eyes are deepening our understanding of everything from exoplanets to primitive galaxies to the birth of stars.

But it’s not the first ground-breaking infrared space telescope we’ve launched. There was IRAS, then ISO, then the Spitzer Space Telescope. The Spitzer is the JWST’s most recent infrared predecessor, and the JWST is observing one of the same targets that the Spitzer did, taking note of some puzzling changes.

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JWST Sees Newly Forming Planets Swimming in Water

This artist’s concept portrays the star PDS 70 and its inner protoplanetary disk. New measurements by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have detected water vapor at distances of less than 100 million miles from the star – the region where rocky, terrestrial planets may be forming. This is the first detection of water in the terrestrial region of a disk already known to host two or more protoplanets, one of which is shown at upper right. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, J. Olmsted (STScI)

One big question about Earth’s formation is, where did all the water come from? New data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) shows newly forming planets in a system 370 light-years away are surrounded by water vapor in their orbits. Although astronomers have detected water vapor in protoplanetary disks before, this is the first time it’s been seen where the planets are forming.

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Some Star Systems Create a Planet Sandwich

Artist rendition of the new “sandwiched planet formation” theory examined for this study. (Credit: University of Warwick/Mark A. Garlick; License Type: Attribution (CC BY 4.0))

A recent study presented at the National Astronomy Meeting 2023 (NAM2023) examines a newly discovered planetary formation theory that challenges previous notions on how planets are formed in the disks of gas and dust surrounding young stars, also known as protoplanetary disks. Along with being presented at NAM2023, the study has also been submitted for peer-review to the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and holds the potential to help scientists better understand not only how planets form, but how life could form on them, as well.

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A Planet has Whipped Up Spiral Arms Around a Young Star

Three protoplanetary disks captured by ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO

When you hear the phrase “spiral arms” you probably think of galaxies. Lots of galaxies have bright arcs of stars that spiral away from their center, including our Milky Way. But not all galaxies have spiral arms, and galaxies aren’t the only celestial objects with spiral arms. About a third of protoplanetary disks around young stars have spiral arms, and we now think we know why.

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Machine Learning is a Powerful Tool When Searching for Exoplanets

Three young planets in orbit around an infant star known as HD 163296 Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; S. Dagnello

Astronomy has entered the era of big data, where astronomers find themselves inundated with information thanks to cutting-edge instruments and data-sharing techniques. Facilities like the Vera Rubin Observatory (VRO) are collecting about 20 terabytes (TB) of data on a daily basis. Others, like the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT), are expected to gather up to 90 TB once operational. As a result, astronomers are dealing with 100 to 200 Petabytes of data every year, and astronomy is expected to reach the “exabyte era” before long.

In response, observatories have been crowdsourcing solutions and making their data open-access so citizen scientists can assist with the time-consuming analysis process. In addition, astronomers have been increasingly turning to machine learning algorithms to help them identify objects of interest (OI) in the Universe. In a recent study, a team led by the University of Georgia revealed how artificial intelligence could distinguish between false positives and exoplanet candidates simultaneously, making the job of exoplanet hunters that much easier.

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