Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope have seen a key stage in the birth of giant planets for the first time. Vast streams of gas are flowing across a gap in the disc of material around a young star. These are the first direct observations of such streams, which are expected to be created by giant planets guzzling gas as they grow. The result is published on 2 January 2013 in the journal Nature.
The international team of astronomers studied the young star HD 142527, over 450 light-years from Earth, which is surrounded by a disc of gas and cosmic dust — the remains of the cloud from which the star formed. The dusty disc is divided into an inner and an outer part by a gap, which is thought to have been carved by newly forming gas giant planets clearing out their orbits as they circle the star. The inner disc reaches from the star out to the equivalent of the orbit of Saturn in the Solar System, while the outer disc begins about 14 times further out. The outer disc does not surround the star uniformly; instead, it has a horseshoe shape, probably caused by the gravitational effect of the orbiting giant planets.
According to theory, the giant planets grow by capturing gas from the outer disc, in streams that form bridges across the gap in the disc.
“Astronomers have been predicting that these streams must exist, but this is the first time we’ve been able to see them directly,” says Simon Casassus (Universidad de Chile, Chile), who led the new study. “Thanks to the new ALMA telescope, we’ve been able to get direct observations to illuminate current theories of how planets are formed!”