Astronomy: Groundbreaking survey reveals secrets of planet birth around dozens of stars

In a series of studies, a team of astronomers has shed new light on the fascinating and complex process of planet formation. The stunning images, captured using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) in Chile, represent one of the largest ever surveys of planet-forming discs. The research brings together observations of more than 80 young stars that might have planets forming around them, providing astronomers with a wealth of data and unique insights into how planets arise in different regions of our galaxy.

París, March 05, 2024.- “This is really a shift in our field of study,” says Christian Ginski, a lecturer at the University of Galway, Ireland, and lead author of one of three new papers published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics. “We’ve gone from the intense study of individual star systems to this huge overview of entire star-forming regions.”

To date more than 5000 planets have been discovered orbiting stars other than the Sun, often within systems markedly different from our own Solar System. To understand where and how this diversity arises, astronomers must observe the dust- and gas-rich discs that envelop young stars — the very cradles of planet formation. These are best found in huge gas clouds where the stars themselves are forming.

Much like mature planetary systems, the new images showcase the extraordinary diversity of planet-forming discs. “Some of these discs show huge spiral arms, presumably driven by the intricate ballet of orbiting planets,” says Ginski. “Others show rings and large cavities carved out by forming planets, while yet others seem smooth and almost dormant among all this bustle of activity,” adds Antonio Garufi, an astronomer at the Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory, Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), and lead author of one of the papers.

The team studied a total of 86 stars across three different star-forming regions of our galaxy: Taurus and Chamaeleon I, both around 600 light-years from Earth, and Orion, a gas-rich cloud about 1600 light-years from us that is known to be the birthplace of several stars more massive than the Sun. The observations were gathered by a large international team, comprising scientists from more than 10 countries.

The team was able to glean several key insights from the dataset. For example, in Orion they found that stars in groups of two or more were less likely to have large planet-forming discs. This is a significant result given that, unlike our Sun, most stars in our galaxy have companions. As well as this, the uneven appearance of the discs in this region suggests the possibility of massive planets embedded within them, which could be causing the discs to warp and become misaligned.

While planet-forming discs can extend for distances hundreds of times greater than the distance between Earth and the Sun, their location several hundreds of light-years from us makes them appear as tiny pinpricks in the night sky. To observe the discs, the team employed the sophisticated Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch instrument (SPHERE) mounted on ESO’s VLT. SPHERE’s state-of-the-art extreme adaptive optics system corrects for the turbulent effects of Earth’s atmosphere, yielding crisp images of the discs. This meant the team were able to image discs around stars with masses as low as half the mass of the Sun, which are typically too faint for most other instruments available today. Additional data for the survey were obtained using the VLT’s X-shooter instrument, which allowed astronomers to determine how young and how massive the stars are. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which ESO is a partner, on the other hand, helped the team understand more about the amount of dust surrounding some of the stars.

As technology advances, the team hopes to delve even deeper into the heart of planet-forming systems. The large 39-metre mirror of ESO’s forthcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), for example, will enable the team to study the innermost regions around young stars, where rocky planets like our own might be forming.

For now, these spectacular images provide researchers with a treasure trove of data to help unpick the mysteries of planet formation. “It is almost poetic that the processes that mark the start of the journey towards forming planets and ultimately life in our own Solar System should be so beautiful,” concludes Per-Gunnar Valegård, a doctoral student at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, who led the Orion study. Valegård, who is also a part-time teacher at the International School Hilversum in the Netherlands, hopes the images will inspire his pupils to become scientists in the future.

More information
This research was presented in three papers to appear in Astronomy & Astrophysics. The data presented were gathered as part of the SPHERE consortium guaranteed time programme, as well as the DESTINYS (Disk Evolution Study Through Imaging of Nearby Young Stars) ESO Large Programme.

“The SPHERE view of the Chamaeleon I star-forming region: The full census of planet-forming disks with GTO and DESTINYS programs” (https://www.aanda.org/10.1051/0004-6361/202244005)

The team is composed of C. Ginski (University of Galway, Ireland; Leiden Observatory, Leiden University, the Netherlands [Leiden]; Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands [API]), R. Tazaki (API), M. Benisty (Univ. Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, IPAG, France [Grenoble]), A. Garufi (INAF, Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri, Italy), C. Dominik (API), Á. Ribas (European Southern Observatory, Chile [ESO Chile]), N. Engler (ETH Zurich, Institute for Particle Physics and Astrophysics, Switzerland), J. Hagelberg (Geneva Observatory, University of Geneva, Switzerland), R. G. van Holstein (ESO Chile), T. Muto (Division of Liberal Arts, Kogakuin University, Japan), P. Pinilla (Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie, Germany [MPIA]; Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, UK), K. Kanagawa (Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan), S. Kim (Department of Astronomy, Tsinghua University, China), N. Kurtovic (MPIA), M. Langlois (Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon, CNRS, UCBL, France), J. Milli (Grenoble), M. Momose (College of Science, Ibaraki University, Japan [Ibaraki]), R. Orihara (Ibaraki), N. Pawellek (Department of Astrophysics, University of Vienna, Austria), T. O. B. Schmidt (Hamburger Sternwarte, Germany), F. Snik (Leiden), and Z. Wahhaj (ESO Chile).

“The SPHERE view of the Taurus star-forming region: The full census of planet-forming disks with GTO and DESTINYS programs” (https://www.aanda.org/10.1051/0004-6361/202347586)

The team is composed of A. Garufi (INAF, Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri, Italy [INAF Arcetri]), C. Ginski (University of Galway, Ireland), R. G. van Holstein (European Southern Observatory, Chile [ESO Chile]), M. Benisty (Laboratoire Lagrange, Université Côte d’Azur, Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur, CNRS, France; Univ. Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, IPAG, France [Grenoble]), C. F. Manara (European Southern Observatory, Germany), S. Pérez (Millennium Nucleus on Young Exoplanets and their Moons [YEMS]; Departamento de Física, Universidad de Santiago de Chile, Chile [Santiago]), P. Pinilla (Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, UK), A. Ribas (Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, UK), P. Weber (YEMS, Santiago), J. Williams (Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawai‘i, USA), L. Cieza (Instituto de Estudios Astrofísicos, Facultad de Ingeniería y Ciencias, Universidad Diego Portales, Chile [Diego Portales]; YEMS), C. Dominik (Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands [API]), S. Facchini (Dipartimento di Fisica, Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy), J. Huang (Department of Astronomy, Columbia University, USA), A. Zurlo (Diego Portales; YEMS), J. Bae (Department of Astronomy, University of Florida, USA), J. Hagelberg (Observatoire de Genève, Université de Genève, Switzerland), Th. Henning (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Germany [MPIA]), M. R. Hogerheijde (Leiden Observatory, Leiden University, the Netherlands; API), M. Janson (Department of Astronomy, Stockholm University, Sweden), F. Ménard (Grenoble), S. Messina (INAF – Osservatorio Astrofisico di Catania, Italy), M. R. Meyer (Department of Astronomy, The University of Michigan, USA), C. Pinte (School of Physics and Astronomy, Monash University, Australia; Grenoble), S. Quanz (ETH Zürich, Department of Physics, Switzerland [Zürich]), E. Rigliaco (Osservatorio Astronomico di Padova, Italy [Padova]), V. Roccatagliata (INAF Arcetri), H. M. Schmid (Zürich), J. Szulágyi (Zürich), R. van Boekel (MPIA), Z. Wahhaj (ESO Chile), J. Antichi (INAF Arcetri), A. Baruffolo (Padova), and T. Moulin (Grenoble).

“Disk Evolution Study Through Imaging of Nearby Young Stars (DESTINYS): The SPHERE view of the Orion star-forming region” (https://www.aanda.org/10.1051/0004-6361/202347452)

The team is composed of P.-G. Valegård (Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands [API]), C. Ginski (University of Galway, Ireland), A. Derkink (API), A. Garufi (INAF, Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri, Italy), C. Dominik (API), Á. Ribas (Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, UK), J. P. Williams (Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawai‘i, USA), M. Benisty (University of Grenoble Alps, CNRS, IPAG, France), T. Birnstiel (University Observatory, Faculty of Physics, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany [LMU]; Exzellenzcluster ORIGINS, Germany), S. Facchini (Dipartimento di Fisica, Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy), G. Columba (Department of Physics and Astronomy «Galileo Galilei» – University of Padova, Italy; INAF – Osservatorio Astronomico di Padova, Italy), M. Hogerheijde (API; Leiden Observatory, Leiden University, the Netherlands [Leiden]), R. G. van Holstein (European Southern Observatory, Chile), J. Huang (Department of Astronomy, Columbia University, USA), M. Kenworthy (Leiden), C. F. Manara (European Southern Observatory, Germany), P. Pinilla (Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, UK), Ch. Rab (LMU; Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik, Germany), R. Sulaiman (Department of Physics, American University of Beirut, Lebanon), A. Zurlo (Instituto de Estudios Astrofísicos, Facultad de Ingeniería y Ciencias, Universidad Diego Portales, Chile; Escuela de Ingeniería Industrial, Facultad de Ingeniería y Ciencias, Universidad Diego Portales, Chile; Millennium Nucleus on Young Exoplanets and their Moons).

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) enables scientists worldwide to discover the secrets of the Universe for the benefit of all. We design, build and operate world-class observatories on the ground — which astronomers use to tackle exciting questions and spread the fascination of astronomy — and promote international collaboration for astronomy. Established as an intergovernmental organisation in 1962, today ESO is supported by 16 Member States (Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom), along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a Strategic Partner. ESO’s headquarters and its visitor centre and planetarium, the ESO Supernova, are located close to Munich in Germany, while the Chilean Atacama Desert, a marvellous place with unique conditions to observe the sky, hosts our telescopes. ESO operates three observing sites: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its Very Large Telescope Interferometer, as well as survey telescopes such as VISTA. Also at Paranal ESO will host and operate the Cherenkov Telescope Array South, the world’s largest and most sensitive gamma-ray observatory. Together with international partners, ESO operates ALMA on Chajnantor, a facility that observes the skies in the millimetre and submillimetre range. At Cerro Armazones, near Paranal, we are building “the world’s biggest eye on the sky” — ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope. From our offices in Santiago, Chile we support our operations in the country and engage with Chilean partners and society.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of ESO, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) in Taiwan and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI). ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

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