An Earth-like exoplanet is forming in the habitable zone around a nearby star, TW Hydrae. This stellar body is much like our own sun. Researchers believe this young planet may resemble an early version of our own home world.
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) observatory was used to record images from the alien system of planets. Astronomers photographed a vast disk of dust and gas, featuring concentric gaps where they believe worlds are slowly forming. The most tantalizing of these sits at roughly the same distance from the central star as Earth orbits around the sun.
The star TW Hydrae is a popular target of observation by astronomers, as the body sits a mere 175 light years away from our own world. This is also a young star, just around 10 million years old. As an extra benefit for astronomers, its planetary dish is also aligned face-on as seen from Earth, making it a perfect target for observation.
"TW Hydrae is quite special. It is the nearest known protoplanetary disk to Earth and it may closely resemble our Solar System when it was only 10 million years old," said David Wilner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
As astronomers discover previously-unknown exoplanets, many are especially interested in finding worlds within the so-called habitable zone around suns. This is the range of orbital distances where temperatures are likely to be neither too hot, nor too cold, to support liquid water and life.
In addition to the gap seen in the habitable zone, other similar rings are noted at nearly 1.9 and 3.8 billion miles from the young star. These distances are equivalent to the orbits of Uranus and Pluto in our own solar system.
These observations are not the only developing solar system astronomers at ALMA have spotted. Researchers there previously uncovered detail in the protoplanetary disk of HL Tau, a system estimated to be just one million years old.
Future research will examine how young solar systems form and change over time. Understanding this process could assist astronomers learning how our own solar system and planet formed 4.5 million years ago.
Analysis of the solar system forming around TW Hydrae was profiled in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.