This Is How Planets Are Born

An array of radio telescopes has captured the best-ever images of cosmic bodies forming around a young star.

Plucked from the Taurus constellation, the star HL Tau gives birth to new planets. Taken by ALMA telescopes, this image provides the best-ever look at planet formation. (ALMA/ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Spectacular clouds of dust and debris whirl around a cosmic womb some 450 light years away from Earth. A planetary system is born. And now astronomers can bear witness to the stellar scene unlike ever before.

New images released Wednesday from the world’s largest set of radio telescopes provide the best-ever view of planets forming around a young star. The images come from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), which is a set of 66 telescopes located in the high-altitude plateaus of northern Chile. The telescopes work together to combine data from incoming radio waves into high-powered images of space. These new images from ALMA are equivalent to photographing a penny from more than 110 kilometers away, the researchers said.

ALMA revealed images from the sun-like star called HL Tau, which is located in the Taurus constellation. At only a million years old, HL Tau is considered young for a planet-bearing star, according to the astronomers.

"When we first saw this image we were astounded at the spectacular level of detail," astronomer Catherine Vlahakis said in a statement. "This one image alone will revolutionize theories of planet formation."

Stars like HL Tau and our Sun form when gravity pulverizes clouds of gas and dust into a dense core. The leftovers create concentric circles around the forming star, as seen in the new images. Each gap separating the dusty disks indicates a planet carving its path through the debris. Gravity will push the space rocks together into protoplanetary disks, which will eventually form planets, asteroids and comets.

The sharp image stunned researcher Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, who said in a video accompanying the press release that when he first saw the images, he thought they were a simulation. Until now only fuzzy photos and artistic adaptations have captured planetary birth. Researchers said that the new images will help them better understand the cosmic events that birthed planets such as our own.