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Planet-forming regions around 3 stars photographed by Chilean telescope

Astronomers using a telescope in Chile have photographed planet-forming regions around young stars.

Nebulas, clouds of interstellar gas and debris, are the birthplaces of stars. Over a long time, the material can begin to coalesce and, once fusion occurs in the cloud, a star is born.

However, most often there is still leftover material that circles the newly formed star, called a protoplanetary disc. Eventually material will clump together, forming planets.

Using the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Spectro-Polarimetric High contrast Exoplanet Research instrument (SPHERE) mounted on the Very Large Telescope, astronomers were able to photograph three of these emerging planetary systems.

One such system surrounds the star RX J1615 that lies 600 light-years away. Astronomers studying this young star found concentric rings similar to those around Saturn, though vastly larger. The 1.8-million year-old system — considered young in astronomical terms — is still forming planets.

A surprise to astronomers was the discovery of a similar structure around the star HD 97048, which lies 500 light years from Earth. It came as a surprise as it was believed that protoplanetary discs contained more asymmetrical arms.

Disc around the star HD 97048

The star HD 97048 in the constellation of Chameleon, about 500 light-years from Earth, illustrating its concentric rings. (ESO, C. Ginski et al.)

A third protoplanetary disc that illustrated a more asymmetrical disc was photographed around HD 135344B. Though this developing system has been studied before, this is the most detailed image to date. The two spiral arms and large central cavity are believed to have been caused by two massive worlds that will develop into Jupiter-like planets.

Disc around the star HD 135344B

The planetary disc surrounding the star HD 135344B that lies about 450 light-years from Earth. The prominent arms are believed to have been created by one or multiple massive protoplanets, destined to become Jupiter-like worlds. (ESO, T. Stolker et al.)

Astronomers are hoping the observations will yield a better understanding of the how the forming planets influence the rings, spirals and even voids.