Hubble Sees a Star About to Ignite

The FS Tau multi-star system. Credit: NASA, ESA, K. Stapelfeldt (NASA JPL), G. Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America)

We know how stars form. Clouds of interstellar gas and dust gravitationally collapse to form a burst of star formation we call a stellar nursery. Eventually, the cores of these protostars become dense enough to ignite their nuclear furnace and shine as true stars. But catching stars in that birth-moment act is difficult. Young stars are often hidden deep within their dense progenitor cloud, so we don’t see their light until they’ve already started shining. But new observations from the Hubble Space Telescope have given us our earliest glimpse of a shiny new star.

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In a Distant Solar System, the JWST Sees the End of Planet Formation

This artist's illustration shows what gas leaving a planet-forming disk might look like around the T Tauri star T. Cha. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser CC BY

Every time a star forms, it represents an explosion of possibilities. Not for the star itself; its fate is governed by its mass. The possibilities it signifies are in the planets that form around it. Will some be rocky? Will they be in the habitable zone? Will there be life on any of the planets one day?

There’s a point in every solar system’s development when it can no longer form planets. No more planets can form because there’s no more gas and dust available, and the expanding planetary possibilities are truncated. But the total mass of a solar system’s planets never adds up to the total mass of gas and dust available around the young star.

What happens to the mass, and why can’t more planets form?

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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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