Planet Formation Captured in Photo

SCIENCE

The clearest image ever taken of planets forming around an infant star has been snapped by the ALMA telescope array in high desert of Chile. (BBC)

Use our resources to understand planet formation.

Teachers, scroll all the way down for a short list of key resources in our “Teachers’ Toolkit.”

This is the sharpest image ever taken by ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. ALMA is a partnership between the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan. Image courtesy ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

This is the sharpest image ever taken by ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. ALMA is a partnership between the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan.
Image courtesy ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Discussion Questions

 

This gorgeous image shows some of ALMA's telescopes, hard at work. Those two dusty smudges in the starry sky are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds—dwarf galaxies we can't see here at Nat Geo headquarters in the Northern Hemisphere. Photograph by Christoph Malin, ESO Photo Ambassador

This gorgeous image shows some of ALMA’s telescopes, hard at work. Those two dusty smudges in the starry sky are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds—dwarf galaxies we can’t see here at Nat Geo headquarters in the Northern Hemisphere.
Photograph by Christoph Malin, ESO Photo Ambassador

  • According to the BBC, HL Tau’s nebula can’t be observed using visible light. Using ALMA, scientists “snapped the impressive new image using much longer wavelengths.” Look at our illustration of the electromagnetic spectrum. What type of radiation do you think ALMA astronomers used to get the new image?
    • Radio, microwaves, and infrared waves—those are radio telescopes in the pretty picture above.

 

Here is a view of HL Tau taken with the world-famous Hubble Space Telescope. (HL Tau is the bright spot in the upper left, streaming all that glowing material.) Photograph courtesy ESA/Hubble & NASA

Here is a view of HL Tau taken with the world-famous Hubble Space Telescope. (HL Tau is the bright spot in the upper left, streaming all that glowing material.)
Photograph courtesy ESA/Hubble & NASA

  • Compare the high-resolution ALMA image at the top of this post to the Hubble image of the same region above. Why do you think the two images look so different?
    • The Hubble view has a much, much wider angle—you see the whole region of space, not just the star. In other words, it’s not as focused as the ALMA image.
    • The Hubble image uses visible light, which is obscured by that big, bright dust cloud. The ALMA image, using radio waves, cuts through the cloud to see the protoplanetary nebula itself.

 

This golden view of Saturn is in "natural color"—the wavelengths that human eyes could see it if there were actually any humans on NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which snapped this image in 2013. Curious about that blue hexagon up top? Read this post to learn more. Photograph by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Cornell

This golden view of Saturn is in “natural color”—the wavelengths that human eyes could see it if there were actually any humans on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which snapped this image in 2013. Curious about that blue hexagon up top? Read this post to learn more.
Photograph by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Cornell

  • Compare the beautiful ALMA image at the top of this post with the equally beautiful view of the planet Saturn above. What is the most striking similarity between the two outer-space images?
    • Both the star and the planet have ring systems. Both systems have light and dark rings.

 

 

  • According the BBC, ALMA’s image matches scientists’ predictions of what such a disc would look like. So, what is so surprising about HL Tau’s protoplanetary nebula?
    • It formed so fast! “When we first saw this image we were astounded at the spectacular level of detail. HL Tau is no more than a million years old, yet already its disc appears to be full of forming planets. This one image alone will revolutionize theories of planet formation,” explained one ALMA scientist.

 

  • Extra Credit: How many planets do you think are forming around HL Tau?

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

BBC: Planet formation captured in photo

Bad Astronomy: A Dusty Disk Heralds the Birth of a New Solar System

Nat Geo encyclopedic entry: planet

Nat Geo illustration: Electromagnetic Spectrum

One response to “Planet Formation Captured in Photo

  1. Having read this I thought it was extremely informative. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this short article together. I once again find myself personally spending a lot of time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!

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