Thursday , February 25 2021

Breakthrough with a new instrument – astronomers get a detailed insight into the birthplace of earth-like planets

Scientists are still studying how planets are formed from disks of dust and gas. With the new infrared camera, data can now be recorded from the inside of these glasses for the first time.

Surroundings of the young star HD 163296 in the constellation Sagittarius.

Surroundings of the young star HD 163296 in the constellation Sagittarius.

Photo: ESO

With the new observation instrument, astronomers have been able to gain a detailed view of the birthplace of earth-like planets. Researchers have uncovered evidence of a vortex on the inner edge of a planetary disk around a young star, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Heidelberg announced on Thursday. In such vortices, small particles could converge and grow to create building blocks for later planets.

For their observations during international collaboration, MPIA scientists used the new “Matisse” instrument, to the construction of which MPIA made a significant contribution. This is an infrared camera for the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) of the European Southern Observatory ESO in Chile.

Interferometer of the very large Das telescope in Chile.

Interferometer of the very large Das telescope in Chile.

Photo: ESO

The “Matisse” (Multi AperTure Medium Infrared Spectroscopic Experiment) combines light collected from up to four individual VLTI telescopes and performs spectroscopic and imaging observations. The system thus simulates the imaging performance of a telescope up to 200 meters in diameter – allowing it to generate the most detailed images that have ever existed in the mid-infrared range.

Restrictions on previous instruments

So far, astronomers have found more than 4,000 planets orbiting distant stars. However, scientists are still investigating how these planets are created from disks of dust and gas that surround their mother stars. In recent years, powerful instruments have taken close-up photographs of such planetary disks. However, by examining the inner areas of these disks they reach their limits.

In these interior regions, earth-like planets are formed from rocks that grow over time from tiny grains of dust. With Matisse, it was now possible to overcome these limits: current observations provide evidence of a vortex embedded in a ring of hot dust on the inner edge of the so-called protoplanetary disk of the young star HD 163296.

Close to planetary disks: coils of hot dust orbit the young star HD 163296 (December 26, 2016)

Close to planetary disks: hot dust coils orbit the young star HD 163296 (December 26, 2016)

Photo: ESO

According to the MPIA, a possible vortex was a focus that creates asymmetry at the inner edge of the disc. Using published data, the scientists concluded that it orbits the star within a month. Its orbit is at a distance from the central star that is comparable to the orbit of the planet Mercury, closest to the sun, around our central star.

“Higher dust density causes dust grains to grow faster than anywhere else on the disk,” explained Roy van Boekel, who heads the Protoplanetary Disk Science Group and manages the “Matisse” project at MPIA. “It could turn these vortices into efficient factories to create the building blocks of future planets.”

Some of the newly formed boulders collide at high speed, crushing the material into small grains. They can reach higher temperatures than larger rocks – which is probably the origin of the hotspot found in the data. The scientists report this result in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

“We deliberately designed‘ Matisse ’to explore the inner zones of the disk-forming planets that were previously inaccessible to available astronomical instruments,” explained Thomas Henning, MPIA director and one of Matisse’s leading scientists. He is proud and excited that the discovery of a potential vortex on the HD 163296 disk shows that we can explore the processes that create Earth-like planets at close range from the parent star.


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