Astronomers working with the high-resolution Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have penetrated clouds of gas and dust to capture the best images ever recorded of planetary formation 450 light-years from Earth.
The Sun-like star HL Tau is one million years old, a mere infant in the universe, located in the constellation of Taurus. The new image captures in great detail the planet-forming disks separated by clearly defined gaps that suggest planet formation is underway, reports the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
ALMA was able to penetrate the dust cloud to record planetary formation because it observes at much longer wavelengths than visible light. "This is truly one of the most remarkable images ever seen at these wavelengths,” said NRAO astronomer Crystal Brogan in a prepared statement. “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."
ALMA's new high-resolution capabilities were achieved by spacing the antennas up to 15 kilometers apart. This baseline at millimeter wavelengths enabled a resolution of 35 milliarcseconds, which is equivalent to a penny as seen from more than 110 kilometers away.
"This observation illustrates the dramatic and important results that come from NSF supporting world-class instrumentation such as ALMA," said Fleming Crim, the National Science Foundation assistant director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences. "ALMA is delivering on its enormous potential for revealing the distant Universe and is playing a unique and transformational role in astronomy."