Worlds without end: The ground-based telescope ALMA has imaged a proto-planetary disk around a sun-like star that suggests an exoEarth is forming there the same distance from the star as our Earth is from our Sun.
The star, TW Hydrae, is a popular target of study for astronomers because of its proximity to Earth (approximately 175 light-years away) and its status as a veritable newborn (about 10 million years old). It also has a face-on orientation as seen from Earth. This affords astronomers a rare, undistorted view of the complete disk. “Previous studies with optical and radio telescopes confirm that this star hosts a prominent disk with features that strongly suggest planets are beginning to coalesce,” said Sean Andrews with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and lead author on a paper published today in Astrophysical Journal Letters. “The new ALMA images show the disk in unprecedented detail, revealing a series of concentric dusty bright rings and dark gaps, including intriguing features that suggest a planet with an Earth-like orbit is forming there.”
Other pronounced gap features are located 3 billion and 6 billion kilometers from the central star, similar to the distances from the Sun to Uranus and Pluto in our own Solar System.
The image above right is the inner section of that disk, showing the gap at one astronomical unit, or about 100 million miles from the star, the same as the distance of the Earth from the Sun. Essentially, this relatively close star system is providing us a perfect opportunity to study the formation of a solar system not unlike our own.