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Revolutionary image shows planets forming around a star

We now have a clear visual of how planets form around stars, thanks to a sensational image of a far-distant star surrounded by evidence of baby planets.

HL Tau and disc
HL Tau sports a lovely disc. ESO/NAOJ/NRAO

There is a million-year-old, sun-like star located about 450 light-years from Earth. Called HL Tau, this star is at the center of a remarkable happening. Planets are forming around it. We know this in part thanks to a remarkable image captured by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) observatory in Chile.

The image looks like a fuzzy, reddish set of circles, like you might see upon cutting open a beet. According to the ALMA team, the image "reveals extraordinarily fine detail that has never been seen before in the planet-forming disc around a young star." The star is at the center, while the protoplanetary disc extends out around it. Darker sections may indicate where young planets are forming.

ALMA is tasked with searching through space for clues to our cosmic origins. The image of HL Tau is sparking considerable interest among scientists.

"When we first saw this image we were astounded at the spectacular level of detail," says Catherine Vlahakis, ALMA Deputy Program Scientist and Lead Program Scientist for the ALMA Long Baseline Campaign. "HL Tauri is no more than a million years old, yet already its disc appears to be full of forming planets. This one image alone will revolutionize theories of planet formation."

The disc around HL Tau consists of gas and dust. Planet formation happens as dust particles stick to each other, eventually pulling ever-larger conglomerations of dust and gas together to create asteroids and comets, as well as planets. The ALMA image and youth of the star combine to show that this process may happen much faster than previously thought possible.

HL Tau is located in the constellation of Taurus, should you want to give it a wave at night and wish it well with birthing its new planets.