So, what are we seeing in the image? First, let’s talk about how a star forms. HL Fau was formed after a cloud of gas and dust collapsed under its own weight. As the star forms, the extra gas and dust swirls around it and forms a flattened disc.
Here’s where it gets awesome. You see the rings and gaps in the image above? Those are probably caused by emerging planets clearing dust from their path as they orbit the star.
“These features are almost certainly the result of young planet-like bodies that are being formed in the disk,” ALMA Deputy Director Dr. Stuartt Corder said in the statement. “This is surprising since HL Tau is no more than a million years old and such young stars are not expected to have large planetary bodies capable of producing the structures we see in this image.”
The ALMA in Chile was vital in getting the image you see above. Scientists couldn’t capture an image in visible light because of the dust and gas surrounding the star. ALMA uses much longer wavelengths and was able to see through the dust.
“This is truly one of the most remarkable images ever seen at these wavelengths. The level of detail is so exquisite that it’s even more impressive than many optical images. The fact that we can see planets being born will help us understand not only how planets form around other stars but also the origin of our own Solar System,” said NRAO astronomer Crystal Brogan.
Check out the video below to see an artist animation of a protoplanetary disk, and NRAO Director Tony Beasley discussing the discovery.