Sunday, July 5, 2020

Planets are formed much faster than we previously thought, study reveals

New observations reveal that planets form much faster than we first believed, in just about half a million years. That may sound like a lot, but is actually a VERY small amount of time on the cosmic level. The new revelations put to rest a question that has been plaguing astronomers for a while: “How are planets formed when the systems have very little mass?”

Data collected from a study in 2018 indicated that planetary nurseries didn’t have the mass to support the formation of a planet. Planets are formed when large masses of dust and gas surround new stars. However, this initial formation is very hard to detect as the massive amounts of light shining from a new star blocks out viable observations ScienceMag reports.

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To solve this issue, researchers used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile to measure the amount of material around young stars that are between 1 million and 3 million years old. Data indicates that the material around these young stars is not even close to sufficient enough for forming large planets.

That is when ?ukasz Tychoniec, a graduate student at Leiden Observatory, decided to look even earlier in a star’s age, rather than searching for missing material around 1 million and 3 million years old. The new observations made using the ALMA and VLA in New Mexico revealed 77 protostars in the Perseus molecular cloud, about 1,000 light-years away. These stars systems are estimated to be around 100,000 to 500,000 years old.

Perseus molecular cloud
Cosmic clouds of gas and dust drift across this magnificent panorama, spanning some 17 degrees near the southern boundary of the heroic constellation Perseus. | Image: Bob Caton, Al Howard, Eric Zbinden, Rogelio Bernal Andreo. | Processing: Rogelio Bernal Andreo

The study revealed that the amount of material available for planetary formation increased by an entire order of magnitude compared to about 1 or 2 million years later. This data finally proved that it wasn’t a question of “where,” but a question of “when.” Planets form much faster than previously expected, in just under half a million years.

However, this conclusion is just based on one molecular cloud, Perseus. In theory, the conclusion can only be made into a statement after multiple observations across multiple molecular clouds and star systems. Tychoniec and his team are going to continue observing younger stars, and see if the conclusion is consistent.

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