Many moons ago, before the pandemic—before we even had moons—our home in the universe was a ring of glowing material, with the young sun in the center, like a donut sprinkled with cosmic dust and gas. Round and round the disk went, whisking particles around, until the material began to stick together in clumps. After millions of years, the clumps curved into the planets and the moons as we know them today, a rich assortment of worlds.
This is our story, but it has happened—is happening—countless times across the cosmos, around other stars. Astronomers have long known about such swirling structures, known as protoplanetary disks, which are the leftovers from the fiery birth of new suns. Telescopes have even managed to observe them in stunning detail (well, as stunningly detailed as you can get many light-years from Earth).
The latest batch of images, released this week, offers one of the highest-resolution views of these planetary nurseries yet.
An international team of astronomers has captured images of the innermost rings of disks swirling around 15 stars, many hundreds of light-years away. Previous observations have never glimpsed this part of a protoplanetary disk, quite close to the parent star, this deeply before. To the untrained eye, the disks, shown at the top of this article, might look like bright splotches of oranges and purples. But to astronomers, they are tantalizing splotches of oranges and purples; there, in those blurry pixels close to the star, is where cosmic forces can transform tiny particles into colossal worlds—especially rocky planets like our own.