New image reveals secrets about the birth of planets

The ELT will be able to observe this planetary system in unprecedented detail.

A new image released today by the European Southern Observatory sheds light on how Jupiter-mass planets can form. With the help of Very Large Telescope (VLT) of ESO and the Atacama Large Millimeter / submillimeter Array (ALMA), researchers have detected huge clumps of dust near a young star that could collapse and form giant planets.

"This discovery is truly exciting as it marks the first detection of clusters around a young star with the potential to give rise to giant planets," said Alice Zurlo, a researcher at Universidad Diego Portales in Chile involved in the observations.

The work is based on an image obtained by the SPHERE instrument (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch) mounted on ESO's VLT, which shows in extreme detail the material surrounding the star V960 Mon.

This young star is located more than 5000 light-years away from Earth in the constellation of the Unicorn and caught the attention of astronomers in 2014 when it suddenly increased its brightness by more than twenty times.

The SPHERE observations, taken shortly after this "burst" of brightness began, revealed that the matter orbiting V960 Mon it is coalescing into a series of intricate spiral arms that extend over distances greater than our entire Solar System.

This discovery prompted astronomers to analyze existing archival observations of the same system taken by ALMA, of which ESO is a partner. VLT observations focus on the surface of the dusty matter around the star, while ALMA can look deeper into its structure.

“With ALMA, it became apparent that the spiral arms are breaking up, resulting in the formation of clumps with masses similar to those of planets,” explains Zurlo.

Astronomers believe that giant planets form either by "core accretion," when dust grains clump together, or by "gravitational instability," when large chunks of material around a star contract and collapse. Although researchers have found previous evidence for the first of these scenarios, clues supporting the second remain sparse.

"Until now, no one had seen a real observation of gravitational instability occurring at planetary scales," said Philipp Weber, a researcher at the University of Santiago, Chile, who led the study published today in the specialist journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“Our group has been looking for signs of how planets form for over ten years, so we couldn't be more excited about this discovery,” said Sebastián Pérez, a member of the team at the University of Santiago, Chile.

ESO's instruments will help astronomers reveal more details about this forming planetary system and the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) will play a crucial role.

Currently under construction in the Chilean Atacama Desert, the ELT will be able to observe this system in unprecedented detail, collecting precious information about it.

“The ELT will allow us to explore the chemical complexity surrounding these clusters, thus helping us to learn more about the composition of the material from which potential planets are forming,” concluded Weber.