Gas guzzlers: New insights into birth of giant planets

January 04, 2013 - 5:36:37 am

PARIS: Astronomers using the most advanced land telescope in the world said that they had unlocked knowledge about how formidable “gas giant” planets such as Jupiter and Saturn come into being.

These vast but uninhabitable worlds are created by gobbling up gas and dust that envelope young stars in a murky disc, they believe. The evidence comes from observations of a youthful star called HD 142527 which is located more than 450 light years from Earth.

Stars are born from a cloud of cosmic gas and dust, which surrounds the star for millions of years after it bursts into light.

Around HD 142527, the astronomers found an intriguing gap in the dusty disc, and they believe this was carved out by newly-forming gas giants. The planets absorb the debris into their expanding mass as they circle the star, according to the investigation, appearing in the journal Nature.

The planets also feast on gas that streams across the gap from the outer zone of the disc to the inner zone, which helps to feed the infant star.

“Astronomers have been predicting that these streams must exist, but this is the first time we’ve been able to see them directly,” said University of Chile astronomer Simon Casassus.

Casassus’ team used the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array, or ALMA, a hi-tech telescope still under construction at the European Southern Observatory’s site in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

By observing light at submillimetre wavelengths, ALMA is impervious to glare in the infrared or visible-light part of the spectrum. 

Using it, the team spotted two dense streams of gas flowing across the gap, as well as residues of gas within the gap itself.

In a separate paper, also published by Nature, astronomers using a radio telescope in Parkes, Australia said that an outpouring of gas and charged particles from the centre of the Milky Way is a byproduct of the birth of new stars. The mysterious energy was first detected in 2010, but only now has it been mapped.

AFP

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