Exoplanets: Ring of Tiny Pebbles Reveals How Baby Planets Form

First Posted: Jul 06, 2015 12:55 PM EDT

Astronomers may have spotted a string of baby planets. They've found a ring of rocks circling a very young star, which could be the very beginnings of planet formation.

Planets are thought to form from the dust and gas that encircles young stars in a disk. Over time, dust particles stick together, until they build up bigger clumps. Eventually, these have enough mass that gravity becomes significant, and over millions of years the clumps crash together to make planets and moons. In our own solar system, this process took place about 4,500 million years ago, with the giant planet Jupiter the first to form.

Since the 1990s, astronomers have found both disks of gas and dust, and nearly 2000 fully formed planets, but the intermediate stages of formation are harder to detect.

In this latest study, though, the scientists used the e-MERLINE array of radio telescopes. More specifically, they used the interferometer to observe the star DG Tauri, a relatively youthful star just 2.5 million years old and 450 light-years away in the constellation Taurus. In the end, they discovered a faint glow characteristic of rocks in orbit around the newly formed star.

"It was a real surprise to also see a belt of pebbles, with only a fraction of the data we hope to acquire," said Anita Richards, one of the researchers, in a news release. "With the four-fold increase in radio bandwidth we are now working on, we hope to get similar images for a whole zoo of other young stars."

The ability to see intermediate planet formation is huge in terms of understanding planetary system evolution. The extraordinary detail of the e-Merlin telescope could, in the future, lead to further discoveries.

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