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New image of space shows how gas giant planets form



The formation of gas giant planets like Jupiter has always been the subject of great scientific interest. Now, an image released by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) may help shed light on just how this happens, a recent study has noted.

The findings of this study were published in the peer-reviewed academic periodical The Astrophysical Journal.

The discoveries were made by using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and Chile’s Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

A giant find: How do giant planets form?

The picture shared by the ESO depicts the faraway star V960 Mon. 

This star is estimated to be relatively young, with imaging taken by the VLT’s Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch tool (SPHERE) showing that it is surrounded by a huge swath of material arranged in spiral patterns. 

This image shows the sky around the location of the star V960 Mon. This picture was created from images in the Digitized Sky Survey 2. (credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin)

This itself makes some sense because it is in line with debris rings formed around young stars, which could eventually form into planets. But the researchers decided to utilize ALMA to go deeper.

What they found was that these spiral arms of materials around the star seem to be fragmenting, forming into new clumps.

What does that mean?

It has to do with how we understand planetary formation. 

Scientists have more or less concluded that there are a few possible ways planets can form. For rocky inner worlds closer to a star like Earth or Mars, the most likely conclusion is that planetary embryos in the inner solar system, the building blocks of minerals that make up planets, collide together to form planets.

But gas giants, like Uranus, Jupiter, Neptune, and Saturn, are different. Those ones likely formed in one of two ways. The first method is core accretion, which supposed that dust particles come together, with the mass slowly growing larger and larger until it forms a huge planet. 

The other method is gravitational instability, which supposes that large chunks of the material around a star end up collapsing.

Plenty of evidence exists for core accretion, but gravitational instability hasn’t seen as much support thus far. 

But that is exactly what seems to be happening here.

“No one had ever seen a real observation of gravitational instability happening at planetary scales — until now,” explained lead author Philipp Weber of the University of Santiago, Chile. 

Future studies will have to examine this still-developing exoplanetary system. Luckily, ESO’s upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) may be able to do exactly that.

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