Thanks to the high resolution capabilities of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, astronomers were able to capture and document the birth of an equivalent of our solar system.
ALMA calls for 66 radio telescopes working together as one instrument; the image of the new planet formation was obtained with ALMA's antennas spaced up to 15 kilometers apart, giving it the capability similar to spotting a penny 110kms away.
ALMA's stunning new image shows the formation of planets around HL Tau, which is located about 450 light-years away in the constellation Taurus.
Scientists have long posited that planetary systems form when spinning discs of dust and gas gradually merge, and the phenomenon captured by ALMA gives credence to this theory as it shows concentric rings cutting through the gas and dust that surround a sun-like star called HL Tau.
These concentric rings, which are notably separated by well-defined gaps, indicate that planet formation is underway. More interestingly, the number of rings represents the number of the planets and at least eight of them appear to be already taking shape.
Besides giving astronomers a glimpse of the birth of a new star system, the observation serves as a gateway to the solar system's past, revealing how the planets of the solar system may have looked like around a much younger sun at the dawn of our planetary system over 4 billion years ago.
"The fact that we can see planets being born will help us understand not only how planets form around other stars but also the origin of our own Solar System," said National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) astronomer Crystal Brogan.
The observation proves some of the theories on the evolution of planetary systems, but it also brought some surprises. The star at the center of the system is less than a million years old, which is considered very young for it to spawn large planetary bodies.
Current theories posit that it takes several million years before planets pull together.
"These features are almost certainly the result of young planet-like bodies that are being formed in the disk. This is surprising since HL Tau is no more than a million years old and such young stars are not expected to have large planetary bodies capable of producing the structures we see in this image," said ALMA deputy director Stuartt Corder.
Astronomers believe that the image could revolutionize theories on the formation of planets.