SANTIAGO – A group of astronomers from different countries has tracked the formation of planets orbiting distant stars using the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA), a radio telescope in northern Chile designed for studying the universe.
Some 20 stars in the Ophiucus and Lupus constellations were analyzed by the international team, which also included three Chilean astronomers from the Center for Excellence in Astrophysics and Associated Technologies (CATA).
Those directing the experiment told EFE that the astronomers have catalogued close to 4,000 exoplanets orbiting distant stars, and while they discovered a great deal about those worlds, a lot remains to be learned about how those planets were formed.
The astronomers have also studied specific cosmic processes that have produced distant planetary bodies like the so-called “hot Jupiters,” massive rocky worlds, frozen dwarf planets, and even faraway worlds similar to Earth.
With their boundless curiosity, team members used the antennas that ALMA has positioned at more than 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) above sea level to produce one of the most detailed maps ever made of protoplanetary discs, which are rings of dust circling young stars and from which planets are formed.
“The importance of this extended program is that it gets us closer to one of ALMA’S basic goals, which is to understand the process of planetary formation,” ALMA Deputy Director Stuartt Corder said.
The program “carries us into a completely new context that permits a much greater statistical perspective. Are these structures common or exotic? Getting closer allows researchers to answer the really deep-down questions about the process of planetary formation,” he said.
The study has produced some impressive high-definition images of 20 of the closest protoplanetary discs and has provided astronomers with new data about the different characteristics and speeds that can turn them into planets.
As for the next steps of the study, Viviana Guzman, an academic at the Catholic University of Chile and author of one of the project’s research papers, said that “the gaseous component of these protoplanetary discs must be observed.”
To do so, a program has been designed that entails 130 hours of observation to map the distribution of organic molecules (containing carbon, oxygen and nitrogen).