By Lola Gayle, Editor-at-large
Just like Taylor Swift and her “Squad,” or Lady Gaga and her “Little Monsters,” every star needs a following. And, just like Earthly pop stars, celestial stars also need their “fan base.”
This image of an infant star in the process of creating its very own system of planets provides a perfect example of fandom on a cosmic scale.
As they grow, youthful stars continually gather material from their surrounding clouds of gas and dust. That incoming material then forms a flat, spinning disk around the star. Planets eventually grow from the material in these disks, using gravitational pull to become bigger over time.
Evidence of this growth can be seen in the image above in the form of a gap left by the forming planets as they pull in more material, leaving a wake in their trail.
In 2013, astronomers working with the ALMA telescope discovered two massive flows of matter within the system coming from interaction between two giant planets that have a mass several times greater than the mass of Jupiter. While those planets have not been visually detected so far, astronomers have proposed models that describe their existence.
Not content to leave it at that, ALMA astronomers have been keeping a keen eye on the young system. In Feb. 2016, new observations provided a closer look at the crescent-shape region of dust in the double star’s protoplanetary disk which is completely devoid of gas.
The astronomers believe the crescent-shaped dust cloud may be the result of gravitational forces unique to binary stars and may also be the key to the formation of planets. The lack of free-floating gases may likely be the result of them freezing out and forming a thin layer of ice on the dust grains.
“The temperature is so low that the gas turns into ice and sticks to the grains,” said Andrea Isella, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Rice University. “This process is thought to increase the capacity for dust grains to stick together, making it a strong catalyst for the formation of planetesimals, and, down the line, of planets.”
“We’ve been studying protoplanetary disks for at least 20 years,” Isella said. “There are between a few hundred and a few thousands we can look at again with ALMA to find new and surprising details. That’s the beauty of ALMA. Every time you get new data, it’s like opening a present. You don’t know what’s inside.”