Tag Archives: ALMA telescope

Chaotic Young Star System Holds the Key to Planet Formation

One of the major problems which has hindered our understanding of planet formation has been the lack of direct measurements of the mass of planet-forming protoplanetary discs. Now, by successfully measuring the mass of a unique protoplanetary disc for the first time, astronomers have confirmed that gravitational instabilities play a key role in the formation of planets.

The team of astronomers, led by Teresa Paneque-Carreño, a PhD student at the University of Leiden and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), used gas velocity data collected using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to make observations of the young star Elias 2-27 which is surrounded by a disc of gas and dust with some extraordinary features.

The star which is located just under 400 light-years from Earth in the constellation Ophiuchus has been a popular target for investigation by astronomers for at least five decades which paid off in 2016 with the discovery that the young star is surrounded by a disc of gas and dust. This marks the first time, however, that such a mass measurement has been made and gravitational instabilities have been confirmed.

Using gas velocity data, scientists observing Elias 2-27 were able to directly measure the mass of the young star’s protoplanetary disk and also trace dynamical perturbations in the star system. Visible in this paneled composite are the dust continuum 0.87mm emission data (blue), along with emissions from gases C18O (yellow) and 13CO (red). (ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/T. Paneque-Carreño (Universidad de Chile), B. Saxton (NRAO))

“How exactly planets form is one of the main questions in our field. However, there are some key mechanisms that we believe can accelerate the process of planet formation,” explains Paneque-Carreño. “We found direct evidence for gravitational instabilities in Elias 2-27, which is very exciting because this is the first time that we can show kinematic and multi-wavelength proof of a system being gravitationally unstable.

“Elias 2-27 is the first system that checks all of the boxes.”

Teresa Paneque-Carreño, University of Leiden

Paneque-Carreño is the first author of one of two papers detailing the team’s findings–which give astronomers the key to unlocking the mystery of planet formation– published in the latest edition of The Astrophysical Journal.

What makes Elias 2-27 the Ideal System for Cracking the Planet Formation Mystery?

Researchers have known for some time that protoplanetary discs of gas and dust surrounding young stars are locations of planet formation and we have certainly no shortage of studies of such structures. But, despite having this knowledge and a wealth of observational data, the exact process that leads to the birth of a planet has remained a puzzle.

This beautiful image, captured with ALMA shows the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star Elias 2-27 which could be the key to solving the mystery of planet formation (B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO))

Fortunately, telltale evidence of gravitational instabilities around Elias 2-27 made it the ideal star for astronomers in order to conduct a thorough investigation of planet formation.

“We discovered in 2016 that the Elias 2-27 disk had a different structure from other already studied systems, something not observed in a protoplanetary disk before: two large-scale spiral arms,” remarks principal investigator Laura Pérez, Assistant Professor at the Universidad de Chile. “Gravitational instabilities were a strong possibility, but the origin of these structures remained a mystery and we needed further observations.”

It was Pérez who suggested that ALMA–a series of 66 radio telescopes located in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile–should be trained on the spiral of gas and dust surrounding this young star.

It was this further study that revealed, not only does Elias 2-27 possess a protoplanetary disc with signs of gravitational instabilities within it, it also has something unique for such a structure: spiral arms.

Elias 2-27: A Unique and Chaotic Young Star System

The presence of spiral arms in the protoplanetary disc is believed to be the result of perturbations caused by density waves throughout the gas and dust that comprise it.

It is the first star-forming disc discovered with such features. But, to Paneque-Carreño it signals the presence of something else within the disc, chaos. This chaotic nature also gives rise to another characteristic never seen in a disc such as this.

“There may still be new material from the surrounding molecular cloud falling onto the disc, which makes everything more chaotic,” says the graduate of the Universidad de Chile. “The Elias 2-27 star system is highly asymmetric in the gas structure. This was completely unexpected, and it is the first time we’ve observed such vertical asymmetry in a protoplanetary disc.”

Elias 2-27 is a young star located just 378 light-years from Earth. The star is host to a massive protoplanetary disk of gas and dust, one of the key elements to planet formation. In this graphic illustration, dust is distributed along a spiral-shaped morphology first discovered in Elias 2-27 in 2016. The larger dust grains are found along the spiral arms while the smaller dust grains are distributed all around the protoplanetary disk. Asymmetric inflows of gas were also detected during the study, indicating that there may still be material infalling into the disk. Scientists believe that Elias 2-27 may eventually evolve into a planetary system, with gravitational instabilities causing the formation of giant planets. Because this process takes millions of years to occur, scientists can only observe the beginning stages. (B. Saxton NRAO/AUI/NSF)

It is the double-punch of this vertical asymmetry and large-scale perturbations giving rise to a spiral structure that Cassandra Hall, Assistant Professor of Computational Astrophysics, University of Georgia, believes has major implications for our theories of planet formation.

“This could be a ‘smoking gun’ of gravitational instability, which may accelerate some of the earliest stages of planet formation,” says Hall, a co-author of one of the papers detailing these findings. “We first predicted this signature in 2020, and from a computational astrophysics point of view, it’s exciting to be right.”

This research has cracked the problem of measuring the mass of a protoplanetary disc, thus removing a significant barrier in our understanding of planet formation. This was possible in large part due to the high sensitivity of ALMA’s observing bands, particularly band 6 which covers light with a wavelength of 1.1 to 1.4 nanometres in combination with bands 3 and 7–which cover 2.6 – 3.6 nm and 0.8 -1.1 nm, respectively.

“Previous measurements of protoplanetary disc mass were indirect and based only on dust or rare isotopologues. With this new study, we are now sensitive to the entire mass of the disc,” says the second paper’s lead author Benedetta Veronesi, a postdoctoral researcher at École normale supérieure de Lyon. “This finding lays the foundation for the development of a method to measure disc mass that will allow us to break down one of the biggest and most pressing barriers in the field of planet formation. “

“Knowing the amount of mass present in planet-forming discs allows us to determine the amount of material available for the formation of planetary systems, and to better understand the process by which they form.”

Benedetta Veronesi, École normale supérieure de Lyon

More Planet Formation Mysteries to Solve

Even though this research has answered some of the questions surrounding the process of planet formation, like the best scientific discoveries, it has also given rise to new questions.

Whilst mysteries still remain surround the process of planet formation, equipped with the stunning observational power of ALMA researchers are up to the challenge (NRAO)

“While gravitational instabilities can now be confirmed to explain the spiral structures in the dust continuum surrounding the star, there is also an inner gap, or missing material in the disk, for which we do not have a clear explanation,” explains Paneque-Carreño.

Many of these questions are difficult to answer because of the vast difference between the timescales on which we live and those taken by the processes that birth planets.

“Studying how planets form is difficult because it takes millions of years to form planets. This is a very short time-scale for stars, which live thousands of millions of years, but a very long process for us,” said Paneque-Carreño. “What we can do is observe young stars, with disks of gas and dust around them, and try to explain why these disks of material look the way they do. It’s like looking at a crime scene and trying to guess what happened. “

Fortunately, researchers like Paneque-Carreño, Cassandra Hall, and Benedetta Veronesi are prepared to tackle this monumental challenge and solve planet formation’s remaining mysteries.

“Our observational analysis paired with future in-depth analysis of Elias 2-27 will allow us to characterize exactly how gravitational instabilities act in planet-forming discs and gain more insight into how planets are formed,” concludes Paneque-Carreño.

Astronomers witness the ‘death’ of a galaxy

The process that causes the end of star formation in galaxies, their transition to an inactive phase and thus their figurative ‘death’ has been a puzzle for astronomers and astrophysicist for some time. Many researchers believe that ‘galactic death’ begins with the ejection of a massive quantity of gas, but thus far, researchers have failed to capture evidence of the escape of this star-forming fuel in such volumes. Thus the confirmation of how this transition to galactic quintessence occurs has also proved elusive.

Now an international team of astronomers have used the  Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) located in the desert region of Chile to spot a distant galaxy in which such a massive ejection of gas is progressing.

“Using ALMA we have discovered a distant galaxy, ID2299, which is ejecting about half of its cold gas reservoir out of the galaxy,” Annagrazia Puglisi, Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy, Durham University, lead researcher on the study, tells ZME Science. “This is the first time we have observed a typical massive star-forming galaxy in the distant Universe about to ‘die’ because of a massive cold gas ejection.”

This artist’s impression of ID2299 shows the galaxy, the product of a galactic collision, and some of its gas being ejected by a “tidal tail” as a result of the merger. New observations made with ALMA, in which ESO is a partner, have captured the earliest stages of this ejection, before the gas reached the very large scales depicted in this artist’s impression. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)
This artist’s impression of ID2299 shows the galaxy, the product of a galactic collision, and some of its gas being ejected by a “tidal tail” as a result of the merger. New observations made with ALMA, in which ESO is a partner, have captured the earliest stages of this ejection before the gas reached the very large scales depicted in this artist’s impression. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

ID2299 is so distant that the light it emits takes 9 billion years to reach Earth, which means the team were able to observe it at a time when the universe was just 4.5 billion years old.

The rate of gas ejection that ID2299–a galaxy with a similar mass to the Milky way– is experiencing is equivalent to 10,000 Suns per year, removing an extraordinary 48% of its total cold gas content. In addition to this, the galaxy is still forming stars at a rapid rate, hundreds of times faster than the star formation rate of our own galaxy.

Puglisi explains that the gas ejection, together with a large amount of star formation in the nuclear regions of the galaxy, will eventually deprive the galaxy of the fuel need to make new stars.

“This would stop star formation in the object, effectively halting the galaxy’s development.”

Annagrazia Puglisi, Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy, Durham University

The team’s research, published in the latest edition of the journal Nature Astronomy, is significant because it represents three ‘firsts’ for astronomy. “This is the first time we observe a typical massive star-forming galaxy in the distant Universe about to ‘die’ because of a massive cold gas ejection,” explains Puglisi. “Also, for the first time, we were able to tell that massive gas ejection might be frequent enough to cause the cessation of star formation in a large number of massive distant galaxies. Finally, we were able to study the physical properties of the ejected gas in a distant galaxy.”

The researcher goes on to explain that these factors are important in the understanding of the triggering mechanism of the ejection– the galaxy’s distinct tidal tail.

Galactic Collisions and Tidal Tails

The research team that discovered ID2299 believe that it was created during a collision between two galaxies and their eventual merger. Ironically this process seems to have triggered the rapid gas loss that will eventually cause it to become inactive.

Another stunning example of a tidal tail is the ‘Tadpole’s Tail’ emerging from the galaxy Arp 188. This tail stretches a stunning 280 thousand light years and was caused by a gravitational interaction with another galaxy. (Hubble Legacy Archive/ NASA/ ESA)

“ID2299 is a galaxy with a large mass in stars and is forming new stars at a rate 300 times faster than our Galaxy– a result of the collision between two galaxies,” co-author Chiara Circosta, Department of Physics & Astronomy, University College London, tells ZME.

The main clue that points towards ID2299’s creation by collision is the fact its ejected gas has taken the form of a tidal tail. These elongated streams of stars and gas that reach into interstellar space are often too faint to see and are theorised to be the result of galactic mergers.

“Collisions between galaxies are very powerful and spectacular phenomena. During the interaction, tidal forces develop and can trigger ejection of gas through tidal tails,” says Circosta. “Our study suggests that these ejections could be frequent enough to stop the formation of new stars in a large number of massive galaxies in the distant Universe.

“Our research shows that these interactions can have an important role in the life-cycles of galaxies.

Chiara Circosta, Department of Physics & Astronomy, University College London

What makes the team’s findings even more impressive is the fact that it’s a discovery that occurred predominantly through good fortune.

Serendipity and a Series of Firsts

Because tidal tails of gas such as the one that the team observed being ejected from ID2299 are extremely faint and thus, difficult for astronomers to observe. In fact, the team weren’t looking for a galaxy like ID2299 at all.

“The discovery of this object was serendipitous. I was inspecting the spectra of 100 star-forming galaxies from the ALMA telescope,” says Puglisi, who goes on to explain that the spectrum of galaxy ID2299 immediately caught her attention as it displayed an excess of emission near the very prominent emission line from the galaxy. “I was very surprised when I measured the flux of this excess emission because it indicated that the galaxy was expelling a large amount of gas.

 “I was thrilled to discover such an exceptional galaxy! I was eager to learn more about this weird object because I was convinced that there was some important lesson to be learned about how distant galaxies evolve.

Annagrazia Puglisi, Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy, Durham University

The discovery of ID2299 sparked a discussion within the team about the mechanism that is causing the gas ejection of gas at such a rapid rate. They concluded that alternative mechanisms simply couldn’t account for ejection in such large amounts.

“We discussed a lot to understand what could have been the possible cause of this phenomenon. Broad components are fairly common in the spectra of distant galaxies and are typically associated with galactic winds,” says Puglisi. “Nor the active black hole nor the strong star formation hosted in ID2299 were powerful enough to produce this ejection.

“The numbers didn’t just add up.”

The ALMA antennas at the Llano Chajnantor–above them, the bright Milky Way is visible–played a vital role in the discovery of ID2299 and will now assist in the further investigation of gas movements in the galaxy (ESO/Y. Beletsky)

The next steps for the team are to use ALMA to make high-resolution observations of ID2299 and the motion of gas within it in order to better understand the gas ejection occurring there. Looking beyond this galaxy, Puglisi says she will also look for similar occurrences in other galaxies.

“I personally find quite fascinating the study of galaxy interactions and mergers. These phenomena are visually spectacular,” the researcher adds. “I find quite poetic that galaxies can get close to each other and influence their life and evolution so dramatically.”

The research the team presents could either overturn current theories that suggest star-forming material is actually ejected by the activity of supermassive black holes at the centre of galaxies or could provide another mechanism by which this can occur. Either way, the discovery represents a significant step forward in our understanding of how galaxies develop.

“I see galaxy evolution as a complex puzzle that researchers are trying to complete through their studies,” Circosta concludes. “A crucial part of the puzzle is about the mechanisms that halt the formation of new stars and ‘kill’ galaxies.

“Witnessing such a massive disruption event allowed us to shed new light on one of the possible culprits responsible for the death of distant galaxies. This adds an important piece to the puzzle of galaxy evolution!”

Chiara Circosta, Department of Physics & Astronomy, University College London

Original research:

Puglisi. A., Daddi. E., Brusa. M., et al, ‘A titanic interstellar medium ejection from a massive starburst galaxy at z=1.4,’ Nature Astronomy, [2021], [DOI: 10.1038/s41550-020-01268-x].

Star blast reveals water ‘snowline’ for first time ever


Image credits NRAO/AUI/NSF

For the first time ever, astronomers have imaged a water “snowline” – the transition point around a star where the temperature and pressure are low enough to allow for water ice formation – in a protoplanetary disk.

Although water snowlines are typically too close in proximity to protostars to be directly observable, a sharp increase in the brightness of the young star V883 Orionis pushed its water snowline out farther than normal, allowing astronomers to capture it with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope.

“We found what looks like a ring at 40 AU (astronomical units)” said Lucas Cieza, an astronomer at Diego Portales University, Santiago, Chile, and lead author of the paper that outlines the findings. “This illustrates well the transformational power of ALMA, which delivers exciting results even if they are not the ones we were looking for.”

The recent outburst from V883 Orionis was triggered by material from the disk making its way onto the surface of the star. It is now approximately 400 times more luminous and significantly hotter than the sun, despite it being only around 30 percent larger in size.

Water ice plays an important role in the control of dust grain agglomeration and helps these grains form into larger particles. Scientists believe that rocky planets such as Mars and Earth are favored within water snowlines, whereas the formation of gaseous planets such as Jupiter are favored outside snowlines due to the presence of ice.

“The distribution of water ice around a young star is fundamental to planet formation and even the development of life on Earth,” said Zhaohuan Zhu, an astronomer at Princeton University, New Jersey, and co-author of the paper. “ALMA’s observation sheds important light on how and where this happens in protoplanetary disks when young planets are still forming. We now have direct evidence that a frosty region conducive to planet formation exists around other stars.”

The discovery that solar outbursts can push water snowlines out past their typical radius has implications for planetary formation models, as such outbursts are believed to play a role in the evolution of planetary systems. Using data from studies such as this, scientists can better understand how planets form and evolve in our universe.

Journal Reference: Imaging the water snow-line during a protostellar outburst. 13 July 2016. 10.1038/nature18612