Planet forming disc surrounds infant star

The Atacama Large Milimetre/submillimetre array, an international astronomy facility in Chile, took this image of the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star HL Tauri. The image is the sharpest ever taken by ALMA.

The young star HL Tauri is no more than a million years old, and is situated about 450 light years from the Earth. Astronomers are hoping it might tell us how the Earth came to be born.

Antennas from the astronomical facility at the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA), on the Chajnatour plateau in the Chilean Andes were pointed at the dusty disc surrounding the young star. The resulting images - the first observations in ALMA's new and most powerful mode - stunned astronomers.

"When we first saw this image we were astounded by the spectacular level of detail," said Catherine Vlahakis, ALMA deputy program scientist. "This one image alone will revolutionise theories of planet formation."

Young stars like HL Tauri are born in clouds of gas and fine dust, forming dense hot cores that eventually become stars. These infant stars are initially surrounded in the gas and dust that remains, and which eventually settles into a disc - a protoplanetary disc.

Investigating protoplanetary discs helps scientists understand how the Earth formed in our Solar System. The disc around HL Tauri may resemble what our planetary system looked like more than four billion years ago.

"Most of what we know about planetary formation today is based on theory. Images with this level of detail have up to now been relegated to computer simulations or artist's impressions," says Tim de Zeeuw, director general of the European Southern Observatory, one of the partners that operates ALMA.

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