European Southern Observatory (ESO) has shared an astonishing image that sheds light on the formation of massive planets like Jupiter. The image, captured using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), showcases large dusty clumps in close proximity to a young star, hinting at the potential creation of giant planets.
“This discovery is truly captivating as it marks the very first detection of clumps around a young star that have the potential to give rise to giant planets,” exclaims Alice Zurlo, a researcher at Universidad Diego Portales, Chile, who was part of the observation team.
The study detailing this breakthrough finding has been published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The mesmerizing picture was obtained using the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument on ESO’s VLT, revealing intricate details of the material surrounding the star V960 Mon. Located in the Monoceros constellation, this young star lies over 5000 light-years away and drew astronomers’ attention when it suddenly intensified its brightness by more than twenty times in 2014. SPHERE observations conducted shortly after this “brightness outburst” disclosed that the material orbiting V960 Mon was organizing itself into a series of elaborate spiral arms, extending over distances larger than our entire solar system.
This fascinating discovery motivated astronomers to analyze archived data of the same system captured by ALMA, in which ESO is a partner. While the VLT observations explored the surface of the dusty material surrounding the star, ALMA allowed a deeper examination of its structure. “With ALMA, it became apparent that the spiral arms are undergoing fragmentation, resulting in the formation of clumps with masses akin to those of planets,” explains Zurlo.
According to current theories, giant planets form either through “core accretion,” where dust grains come together, or via “gravitational instability,” where large fragments of material around a star contract and collapse. While evidence for the former has been found before, support for the latter has been scarce.
“This observation is the first time we’ve witnessed gravitational instability happening at planetary scales – a truly unprecedented sight,” says Philipp Weber, a researcher at the University of Santiago, Chile, who led the study.
Sebastián Pérez, a team member from the University of Santiago, Chile, expresses excitement about this remarkable discovery, stating that their group has been investigating planet formation for over a decade.
ESO’s instruments will continue to play a crucial role in unveiling more details about this captivating planetary system in the making, and the upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction in Chile’s Atacama Desert, will provide an even more detailed view, collecting crucial information about the system.
“The ELT will enable the exploration of the chemical complexity surrounding these clumps, helping us find out more about the composition of the material from which potential planets are forming,” concludes Weber.