This Photo May Finally Reveal How Planets Are Formed

Monday, 16 October 2017 - 10:50AM
Solar System
Monday, 16 October 2017 - 10:50AM
This Photo May Finally Reveal How Planets Are Formed
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As much as we may have learned over the past few thousand years of studying the stars, there's still a lot we don't know.

One big mystery that's stumped astronomers for quite some time is how exactly planets are formed.

While modern technology makes it easier to observe the formation of far away star systems, there is essentially a missing link in our understanding of the birth of stars: we're still not entirely certain how planets managed to exist in the first place.

During the birth of a star, a lot of debris and dust forms around the fledgling celestial body, which is quickly eaten up as it's pulled into the gravitational field of the star as it expands.

Somehow, planets avoid being swallowed up, and a new paper from the University of Exeter in the UK has a suggestion as to how this happens.

The study takes a good look at some photos of a distant star that have been taken by the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. Here, we've been able to observe a kind of doughnut shape out in the cosmos, which astronomers believe is a dust cloud forming around a new star.

Soon (well, it's already long since happened, but the light from the even won't reach us for a while yet to come), the star will absorb all of this dust and debris, expanding in size as it bursts into better view.

Yes, that's right - stars grow fatter when they eat doughnuts, just like we all do.

But see that little wisp of dust trailing an outer circle in orbit of the fledgling star? That's some more dust, and it suggests that there's something hidden in between the first doughnut and the wider partial ring that's nicely shielded from the full weight of the star.

The paper from the University of Exeter posits that if a planet has formed as part of an outer ring of debris in orbit around the star, then it may escape being gobbled up when the rest of the dust gets sucked into the center of the system, allowing it to endure uneaten.

This could be the secret that explains how planets form, as large chunks of left-over debris that avoid being eaten thanks to being shielded by a thick fog of space dust that settles closer to the star and is summarily consumed first.

If this is true, we might even see evidence of it in our own solar system - the asteroid belt beyond Mars could well be our homegrown equivalent to the outer ring in the photo; dust that's left behind that has formed into larger rocks once the similar debris that's closer to the sun was already eaten up.

We don't yet know how accurate this theory might be, but there is merit to it, and either way, it should give us a vantage point from which to further theorize about the life cycle of a star and its planets.

It also helps us contemplate the life-changing power of a doughnut. And that's always worthwhile.
Solar System
Photo may reveal secret to how planets formed in solar system