Telescope captures planet formation image

Nov 06, 2014, 5:51 PM EST
Low angle view of observatory telescope looking up at starry night sky
A disc of dust, gas, and dark rings are visible in a new photo taken by the Alma radio telescope that shows planets forming around an infant star. The BBC writes:
The sun-like star at the centre, HL Tau, is less than a million years old and is 450 light years from Earth in the constellation Taurus.
The image was made possible by Alma's new high-resolution capabilities.
Because the process of planet formation takes place in the midst of such a huge dust cloud, it can't be observed using visible light.
Alma, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, has snapped the impressive new image using much longer wavelengths, which it detects by comparing the signal from multiple antennas up to 15km apart.
To test out its latest high-resolution capability, only in operation since September, Alma scientists pointed the antennas at HL Tau. They found themselves looking at a "protoplanetary disc" in more detail than ever before.
“The first time I saw this image, I thought it was actually probably a simulation—it was way too good,” said Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, in a video accompanying a press release. The NRAO helps operate ALMA.
The disk has gaps and rings that are carved out by nascent planets—features that have only been modeled in computer simulations. The star, named HL Tau, is 450 light-years away in the constellation Taurus. It’s only about a million years old—remarkably young to be already giving birth to planets.
A star forms when a cloud of gas and dust collapses under its own weight. As the embryonic star comes together, it spins, and the excess gas and dust flatten out into a surrounding disk like a pizza. All that stuff in the disk starts to form particles that then clump together, accumulating until they eventually form asteroids, comets, and planets. As those budding bodies grow, they plow through the remaining material in the disk, creating the gaps and rings seen in the new ALMA image.