New discovery may reveal origin of the solar system

By CINDY JIANG | March 28, 2019

Nothing is impossible. This statement is perhaps best embodied by the planetary sciences, a field in which scientists have made so many discoveries that seem so far removed from the normal everyday. Take the Big Bang for instance. It is a familiar concept to many, but scientists don’t really have any primary sources for the actual event. 

The Big Bang tells us that the universe we exist in was formed about 13.7 billion years ago in a massive expansion of space. Our Solar System, by comparison, is relatively young at approximately 4.6 billion years old, hailing from a cloud of cosmic gas and dust.

A large number of plausible hypotheses for astronomical phenomena are based on current observations that scientists make. 

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is one of the instruments helping researchers make these observations. ALMA is an interferometer composed of 66 radio telescopes and located in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. The telescope picks up electromagnetic radiation at millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths and scientists expect it to provide insight on the birth of early stars from detailed imaging of local star and planet formation.

The radiation gathered by ALMA encompasses light with wavelengths that lie between infrared light and radio waves on the electromagnetic radiation spectrum. 

ALMA’s purpose is to detect light from vast cold clouds in interstellar space – light that is not in the region of visible light. These wavelengths are useful for the study of the chemical and physical conditions in molecular clouds, which are dense areas of gas and dust with a high probability of new star formation. 

The information obtained from such findings allows scientists to work backwards and reach conclusions about the origins of our own Solar System. Therefore, the analysis of young planetary system formation around other stars holds the possibility of an important discovery, and ALMA has made just this observation around the young star DM Tau located 470 light-years away in the constellation Taurus. 

Though DM Tau is only roughly half the mass of the Sun and three to five million years old, it is comparable to our Sun in several other ways. 

The discovery of two concentric dust rings located at distances corresponding to the locations of the asteroid belt as well as the orbit of Neptune in the Solar System reveal the likelihood that we are witnessing the formation of a planetary system – a process that may contain the answers to questions we have regarding our own beginnings. 

Tomoyuki Kudo, an astronomer at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) confirmed these findings. 

“Previous observations inferred two different models for the disk around DM Tau,“ Kudo said in a press release. 

In addition to identifying DM Tau, researchers on the study noticed a bright patch on the outer concentric ring that is representative of a local concentration of dust - a possible formation site for a planet (think Uranus). 

Jun Hashimoto, who is a researcher at the Astrobiology Center in Japan, comments on the value of DM Tau. “We are also interested in seeing the details in the inner region of the disk, because the Earth formed in such an area around the young Sun. 

The distribution of dust in the inner ring around DM Tau will provide crucial information to understand the origin of planets like Earth.”

This is not the first time ALMA has made a contribution to the field. The telescope has previously taken images of protoplanetary disks including HL Tau and detected the presence of complex organic molecules vital for fostering life in faraway protoplanetary disks. 

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