Zooming In on an Infant Solar System

From UA news

By Daniel Stolte, University Communications June 10, 2010

For the first time, astronomers have observed solar systems in the making in great detail.

Like a raindrop forming in a cloud, a star forms in a diffuse gas cloud in deep space. As the star grows, its gravitational pull draws in dust and gas from the surrounding molecular cloud to form a swirling disk called a “protoplanetary disk.” This disk eventually further consolidates to form planets, moons, asteroids and comets. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A team led by University of Arizona astronomer

Joshua Eisner has observed in unprecedented detail the processes giving rise to stars and planets in nascent solar systems.

The discoveries, published in theAstrophysical Journal, provide a better understanding of the way hydrogen gas from the protoplanetary disk is incorporated into the star.

By coupling both Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii with a specifically engineered instrument named ASTRA (ASTrometric and phase-Referenced Astronomy), Eisner and his colleagues were able to peer deeply into protoplanetary disks – swirling clouds of gas and dust that feed the growing star in its center and eventually coalesce into planets and asteroids to form a solar system.

The big challenge facing Eisner’s team lies in obtaining the extremely fine resolution necessary to observe the processes that happen at the boundary between the star and its surrounding disk – 500 light years from Earth. It’s like standing on a rooftop in Tucson trying to observe an ant nibbling on a grain of rice in New York’s Central Park.

“The angular resolution you can achieve with the Hubble Space Telescope is about 100 times too coarse to be able to see what is going on just outside of a nascent star not much bigger than our sun,” said Eisner, an assistant professor at UA’s Steward Observatory. In other words, even a protoplanetary disk close enough to be considered in the neighborhood of our solar system would appear as a featureless blob.

Combining the light from the two Keck telescopes provides an angular resolution finer than Hubble’s. Eisner and his team used a technique called spectro-astrometry to boost resolution even more. By measuring the light emanating from the protoplanetary disks at different wavelengths with both Keck telescope mirrors and manipulating it further with ASTRA, the researchers achieved the resolution needed to observe processes in the centers of the nascent solar systems.

Read the rest of the story here

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48 thoughts on “Zooming In on an Infant Solar System

  1. Quote “swirling clouds of gas and dust that feed the growing star in its center and eventually coalesce into planets and asteroids to form a solar system.”
    If this is how our solar system evolved, how can the sun be mainly hydrogen, and the planets have all the elements of the Periodic Table? Shades of Oliver Manuel.

  2. Like many of our sacred cows, scientific dogma promotes and protects whatever ideology that is currently supported by the mainstream. This ensures “peer” acceptance in more than just publications. Ideally, financial motivation could be limited by ensuring that investigation be unfettered and equally provided for. Not in the real world, unfortunately…
    The only thing we know for sure is that the challenge lies in challenging orthodoxy.
    The big difference with relevancy is the billions of $$$ that are involved for the scientists and the trillions of $$$ that are in play through political policy and industrial maneuvering. Thankfully, we have arrived not in an age of reason but in an age of information and dissemination is what counts.

  3. Jim Cripwell says:
    June 12, 2010 at 4:01 am

    Quote “swirling clouds of gas and dust that feed the growing star in its center and eventually coalesce into planets and asteroids to form a solar system.”
    If this is how our solar system evolved, how can the sun be mainly hydrogen, and the planets have all the elements of the Periodic Table? Shades of Oliver Manuel.

    Good question. Could it be that the greater angular momentum of the heavier elements kept them further out? Only speculation, but when you swirl things around, eg in a centrifuge, this happens, but I have not looked at the physics of a solar system.

  4. Relevance? From the masthead, it’s part of “life, nature, science…” and general coolness. 🙂

  5. All heavier elements are formed in nucleuses of the Galaxy’s stars; some ended in supernovae explosions and were blasted away, to later form planets by gravitation attraction. Meteorites with pre-solar carbon have been found in Central Africa and Brazil.

  6. >> Jim Cripwell says:
    June 12, 2010 at 4:01 am
    If this is how our solar system evolved, how can the sun be mainly hydrogen, and the planets have all the elements of the Periodic Table? Shades of Oliver Manuel. <<
    The gas is mostly hydrogen, with less than 10% helium and trace amounts of other gasses. The dust includes ices and is an insignificant fraction of the total, although it's significant enough to make planets. Imagine a star of just hydrogen and helium, then drop Earth and Venus into it. Afterwards its still mostly just hydrogen and helium. The gas component that didn't become part of the sun (or Jovian planets) was blown out of the solar system long ago.
    The atmospheres of the rocky planets (mostly H2O and CO2) were from ices that accreted in planet formation and were later outgassed. The argon came from the decay of potassium 40, and helium from alpha decay. Oxygen in Earth's atmosphere is biological. I still haven't heard a good explanation of the nitrogen.

  7. Relevance? Why not? Do we always have to talk about the weather/climate? I rather liked this piece.

  8. Jbar says:
    June 12, 2010 at 5:43 am
    Objection. Relevance?
    hoho. Never let it be said I leave the low hanging fruits…
    Look at the banner, Jbar, see the words? The magical words that explain the purpose and focus of this site? Nature and Science are included, so – leaving aside that its Anthony’s site and he can do pretty much what he wants, this little topic is pretty much covered and is interesting, no?

  9. Jbar says:
    June 12, 2010 at 5:43 am
    > Objection. Relevance?
    See masthead: “Commentary on puzzling things in … nature, science, ….”
    Solar system formation is part of nature, and has been puzzled over by astronomers, who are scientists.
    QED.
    Mosh – thanks for posting this, I hadn’t heard the news.

  10. Jim Cripwell – perhaps the swirling motion of the nascent solar system separates some of elements. maybe Leif could explain the mechanism. cheers.

  11. Jim, the without going too deeply into the Big Bang, and ignoring everything from Planks Era to the Era up to the end of the Era of Nucleosynthesis, the Universe was just a hot plasma cloud of mostly hydrogen and helium nuclei, with a bunch of free electrons and photons. The vast majority of the observable Universe is still comprised of hydrogen. If the Hubble Constant is accurate, the current estimated age of the Universe is 13.7 Gyrs, our Sun around 5 billion. There is an awful lot of hydrogen still not dense or hot enough to form into stars.
    As for the other elements, I could start a thread on stellar formation and lives, but you could always look up what happens in high mass stars, how short their lives are, and what they produce when they die. Start here?
    http://astronomyonline.org/Stars/HighMassEvolution.asp

  12. “If this is how our solar system evolved, how can the sun be mainly hydrogen, and the planets have all the elements of the Periodic Table? Shades of Oliver Manuel.”
    Because only large bodies such as a star or a gas giant have enough gravitational pull to collect significant quantities of hygrogen which is one of the lightest elements. The heavier elements precipitate into rocky bodies with very little hydrogen or helium in them. All of the heavier elements are created during supernova events from previous generations of stars.

  13. I don’t know about relevence, but a very interesting post. Never ceases to amaze me, however, how no matter what branch of science we discuss, issues and processes which are highly speculative are pretty much presented as facts. Interesting is the real fact that every time we get a closer look at solar system objects we find out our “facts” were wrong!!! Reminds me of the climate issues presented here. Is it really too difficult to use the words, “possibly, maybe, we speculate, we theorize, a possible theory is that……”?

  14. This disk eventually further consolidates to form planets, moons, asteroids and comets.
    If this disk consolidates to form everything, why does it consolidate into multiple different things?

  15. Thanks people for the comments. I still cannot see how a swirling mass that is mainly hydrogen, suddenly has elements like Uranium in it. The elements in the periodic table are thought to evolve in supernova. Hence Oliver Manuel’s idea that our sun was a supernova 5 billion years ago, and the solar system is the aggregation of the elements formed in the explosion, while the sun has a neutron star at it’s center, with the remainder being similar to what formed the planets. I still find this a much more plausible explanation.

  16. Okay. Just to keep the “objectors” happy. How are they going to link this to Al Gorebull’s Weather?? Where’s the CO2 around the star’s “atmosphere” that’s making it so frickin hot??

  17. It doesn’t explain (the protoplanetary disk) the halo of Kuiper Belt objects and the Oort cloud that are off the plane of the Solar System. Our own protoplanetary something-or-other might have formed in a SuperNova cloud remnant interacting with other clouds of galactic gas. There is too much Iron in the cores of the Planets.

  18. Iron is the thermonuclear sink (think low energy wells of thermodynamics) for both fusion (of lower elements) and fission (of higher elements).

  19. Tom_R says:
    June 12, 2010 at 7:09 am
    If this is how our solar system evolved, how can the sun be mainly hydrogen, and the planets have all the elements of the Periodic Table? Shades of Oliver Manuel.
    The Sun also has all the elements. The separation comes about simply by temperature: the planets closer to the Sun are [were] to hot to retain Hydrogen and Helium, the Gas Giants have a large amount of H and He. No need for the neutron star etc. It is enough that there are plenty of supernovae scattered about. There has been about 1/4 billion supernovae in our Galaxy.
    I still haven’t heard a good explanation of the nitrogen.
    Nitrogen is common in the interstellar medium [from which the sun was formed – and whose heavier elements were formed in distant Supernovae]. But Nitrogen is chemically rather inert and so tend not to be taken up in rocks, hence left as atmosphere.

  20. Jbar says: “Objection. Relevance?”
    And your credentials that you imagine entitle you to object to a post here consist of…?

  21. Wow. From Jim Cripwell’s opening comment, the actual on-topic comments here are awesome – meaning the same questions I have.
    Jim Cripwell at 4:01 am:

    Quote “swirling clouds of gas and dust that feed the growing star in its center and eventually coalesce into planets and asteroids to form a solar system.”
    If this is how our solar system evolved, how can the sun be mainly hydrogen, and the planets have all the elements of the Periodic Table? Shades of Oliver Manuel.

    I have asked this question forever, and have NEVER seen an answer that satisfies me.
    Formation of heavier elements inside stars and novae sounds plausible for making the elements. But how they get from inside the stars to become planets seems to always come down to some vague statement about “aggregating” or coalescing, and everybody seems to accept that at face value.
    But the nano- or pico-gravity of particles SLOWLY attracting each other does not IMHO explain how those elements were crushed together to form ROCKS in the crust of the Earth or enough compression to make molten magma. The minuscule gravity of dust particles (how did the dust get large enough to become dust, even???) can only draw them together like lint. To go from lint to solid rock or iron in asteroids – how does anyone explain that? A solid LARGE chunk, out there – what compressed the metals and minerals into a solid from a lint-like aggregated/coalesced body with the gravitational force of a feather?
    Jim Cripwell again at 9:15 am:

    Thanks people for the comments. I still cannot see how a swirling mass that is mainly hydrogen, suddenly has elements like Uranium in it.
    The elements in the periodic table are thought to evolve in supernova. Hence Oliver Manuel’s idea that our sun was a supernova 5 billion years ago, and the solar system is the aggregation of the elements formed in the explosion,

    If our Sun went supernova, the explosion would not have left the solid material in the close-in orbits. Pretty much everything would be far outside Pluto’s orbit. It is an explosion, for heaven’s sake, and once accelerated outward, where is the braking force to slow down and stop ANYTHING from continuing on, away from the supernova?
    If the Sun went nova today, IMHO, it would blast the inner planets out, and at the very least, strip all the outer planets of their atmospheres, if not carry them away, too.
    This is no explanation. If the heavier elements came from a nova, it had to have been from other nova elsewhere and the “stuff” all was captured here eventually.
    Everywhere I look, all I see is insufficient gravity to do any planetary formation. Coalesing/aggregating, possibly, but making a solid planet? You need compression, and I just don’t see it happening. Look at a piece of rock on the surface now. Where is the force to weld that into the material it is resting on? Now, make that the surface of a 20-km wide asteroid. What kind of force is available to compress it all into a solid? It isn’t there.

  22. While on the matters ‘extraterrestrial’, if you live in the land of Oz, watch out for Hayabusa probe; its due to hit the dust somewhere in the outback tomorrow (Sunday 13th).

  23. >> Jim Cripwell says:
    June 12, 2010 at 9:15 am
    Thanks people for the comments. I still cannot see how a swirling mass that is mainly hydrogen, suddenly has elements like Uranium in it. The elements in the periodic table are thought to evolve in supernova. Hence Oliver Manuel’s idea that our sun was a supernova 5 billion years ago, and the solar system is the aggregation of the elements formed in the explosion, while the sun has a neutron star at it’s center, with the remainder being similar to what formed the planets. I still find this a much more plausible explanation. <<
    There was no suddenly about it. When a star explodes, all but a neutron core is blown back into interstellar space. Even after the star has lived its entire life, most of what is released in the supernova is still hydrogen. This stuff mixes with the existing interstellar gas which is predominantly hydrogen. Eventually pockets of this enriched gas collapse to form second generation stars like our sun, with the planets also forming in the process. All of the elements can be found in the sun, but it is mostly hydrogen. Astronomers can observe stars with very limited amounts of elements heavier than helium in old star clusters.
    As others have pointed out, the lightest gasses are not captured by rocky planets like Earth. Radioactive decay must have released a significant amount of helium into the Earth's atmosphere. That it's not there agrees with the idea that Earth couldn't capture and hold the lighter gasses.
    If the sun had a neutron-star core, wouldn't it be a lot more massive? Maybe someone here knows the mass of the smalled observed neutron star.
    Of course all this is speculation, but it seems reasonable. At least politicians are not trying to tax us out of existence based on the theory.

  24. Rick, thanks,
    I was trusting that some of the audience would find it interesting. figured leif might

  25. >> Leif Svalgaard says:
    June 12, 2010 at 10:21 am
    Nitrogen is common in the interstellar medium [from which the sun was formed – and whose heavier elements were formed in distant Supernovae]. But Nitrogen is chemically rather inert and so tend not to be taken up in rocks, hence left as atmosphere. <<
    Are you saying that the nitrogen has always been there as a gas surrounding the Earth? My impression is that the primordeal Earth was kept far too hot from the massive energy release during accretion to retain an atmosphere of any kind, and that everything now in our atmosphere, along with the now-liquid water, outgassed later.

  26. Imagine that … scientists doing real science. Must be tough to get funding for that.

  27. Observational astronomy indicates that stars are born in “nurseries”. Where are our “siblings”? Did they seed our nascent protosolar disk with all kinds of elements as they went nova and supernova?
    Are we, once again, a near-unique case in a universe of possibilities?
    It sure is great to be alive in these times and to be able to ask questions and get answers other than the official line that (the) god(s) did it…..(although some answers are more categorical and less imaginative than others).

  28. Jim Cripwell June 12, 2010 at 4:01 am says:
    If this is how our solar system evolved, how can the sun be mainly hydrogen, and the planets have all the elements of the Periodic Table? Shades of Oliver Manuel.
    Not necessarily the iron sun. It can be Herndon’s nuclear planet as well. He supposes a proto-earth the size of Jupiter, core made of heavy elements separating gravitationally to middle, compressed. A brief T Tauri phase of early sun stripped the core of this gas giant (present day Earth) of its hydrogen-helium atmosphere, some 300 times more massive than the residual.
    I don’t like his style, much less his involvement in junk movies like The Core, but that’s not enough to invalidate his theory.
    It has far reaching consequences for both astrophysics and geology, including dark (unignited) stars, a 4-12 TW uranium breeder reactor in the core, lack of mantle convection (its role played by decompression), a reduced (oxygen poor, hydrogen rich) state of lower mantle, vast reserves of abiotic hydrocarbons seeping up from the abyss (no peak oil). Things like that.
    His theory is falsifiable in principle, but as far as I know is not falsified yet. For instance a direction sensitive neutrino detector far from any commercial reactors could either confirm or reject the existence of a 8 km diameter fission reactor in the middle of the core. At least this idea is taken seriously, some experiments are under way.

  29. I very much appreciate Anthony and the moderators adding posts on other areas of science besides terrestrial climatology to the mix. The danger is that I might not ever be able to leave this site!
    It is also interesting to read commentary referencing alternatives to ‘consensus’ views. I had not heard of J. Marvin Herndon, for instance. Academic politics are not restricted to ‘climate science’. Has anyone successfully refuted Halton Arp’s observational evidence of the close association of astronomical objects of wildly different redshifts? The implications for the now-conventional Big Bang theory are profound. Yet press reports of developments in astronomy/cosmology routinely assume that the Big Bang is established fact, much as the press routinely refers to ‘climate change’ as a problem caused by man. It is hard to blame the reportage when academically unpopular hypotheses and views are suppressed.
    /Mr Lynn

  30. First, yes, most of what is theoretical is stated as fact. At best, the current cosmological theories are internally consistent or plausible approximations. For instance, Einstein’s theory of relativity is a theory, and an imperfect one; even so, we don’t toss it out entirely, as in most cases, it works. The problem with cosmology is that we don’t have billions of years to live, or billions of years of funding to research. In cosmological time, we are taking random high-speed snapshots and trying to make a working understanding of exactly what we are looking at. It is frustrating and difficult, and the only way to be sure our guesses are right are to get more and different snapshots.
    Feet2theFire –
    First, at supernova temperatures, solid elements such as iron would be gas as well, so the formation of dust is much later, when this gas has cooled down and formed chemical bonds with other such matter nearby. Otherwise it is simply a random atom careening through the cosmos.
    The formation of rocks, asteroids, moons, and rocky planets are not from the sheer force of squeezing two bits of dust together. Rather, consider that this is all spinning through an enormous cloud of coalescing gas. Inelastic collisions at high velocity as well as friction would count for the heat necessary to turn the dust into rock. Remember that there was much more gas in the protoplanetary disc before the sun went nuclear. Much of that was blown off.

  31. It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, not as we know it; it’s life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it…

  32. Mr. Lynn – The Big Bang itself was an unpopular theory hatched up by a desperate Catholic priest trying futilely to produce a First Mover argument against a scientific establishment that had already decided by consensus that the universe is essentially eternal and unmoving. His hypothesis was dismissed for years as “silly”. Only eight years later did it receive any traction, and thirty three years after that before it became preeminent.
    Is the Big Bang or similar theory true? Perhaps, or perhaps not. We don’t even know how much we don’t know. However, the Big Bang is a big theory, not so much by funding or popularity, as there is no other well known theory that can take its place and explain as much at this time.
    Even so, it is not a beloved theory, as its central premise is absurd to most scientists. Perhaps this Halton Arp will be the luminary to replace Monsignor Lemaître, or perhaps there is a quirk of the Big Bang or physics itself that may need to be revisited. It will be difficult, but that is how humans are. At least there isn’t billions or even trillions of dollars of vested government interests at stake.

  33. Patrick says:
    June 12, 2010 at 5:35 pm
    The Big Bang . . . is not a beloved theory, as its central premise is absurd to most scientists. . .

    Many decades ago I remember reading a popular exposition on cosmology. The problem was the apparent expansion of the universe, evidenced by the red shift. At the time the great debate was between Fred Hoyle and his ‘Steady State’ hypothesis, which posited the constant creation of hydrogen in space, forcing the expansion, and George Gamow, who advocated a Big Bang. It was I guess the discovery of the ‘cosmic background radiation’, predicted by Big Bang theorists, that won the day.
    However, neither of these constructs would be necessary if the universe were not actually expanding. Halton Arp is a professional astronomer of distinction, who claims to have observational evidence of distant linked objects with very different redshifts, and has developed alternate hypotheses to explain these phenomena, including the notion of ‘intrinsic reshift’, and a speculation about the evolution of galaxies from quasars. For this effrontery he has been read out of meetings and journals: Halton Arp, Seeing Red: Redshifts, Cosmology and Academic Science http://www.amazon.com/Seeing-Red-Redshifts-Cosmology-Academic/dp/0968368905
    /Mr Lynn

  34. Jim Cripwell,
    Ever seen a centrifuge do its thing? The lighter, less dense material winds up in the center, the denser stuff winds up out at the perimeter. This is how the planets wind up with most of the angular momentum and the sun gets most of the hydrogen and helium.

  35. Feet2thefire,
    Heavy elements beyond, say, carbon, are not made inside stars. They are produced in supernovae of various kinds, and so they get spewed out into space as nebulae and become the material of the next generation of stars and planets.
    The first stars in the universe were purely hydrogen and a little helium with no planets other than perhaps brown dwarfs and other superjupes. It took a long time for the universe to build up enough heavier matter for stars to form planets. When our sun was born, the universe was some 8-9 billion years old already.

  36. Tom_R says:
    June 12, 2010 at 11:59 am
    My impression is that the primordeal Earth was kept far too hot from the massive energy release during accretion to retain an atmosphere of any kind, and that everything now in our atmosphere, along with the now-liquid water, outgassed later.
    And so it was, but due to its chemical inertness Nitrogen didn’t combine with the minerals in the rocks and so is still in the free atmosphere.

  37. Mike Lorrey says:
    June 12, 2010 at 9:11 pm
    Ever seen a centrifuge do its thing? The lighter, less dense material winds up in the center, the denser stuff winds up out at the perimeter. This is how the planets wind up with most of the angular momentum and the sun gets most of the hydrogen and helium.
    Except that that is not the way it works. The early solar system was not a centrifuge. both the sun and the planets ‘condensed’ from the proto-disk. There was a very strong solar wind and a strong magnetic field coupling the sun to the disk [=planets]. The tension in the field spun down the Sun and spun up the planets [due to conservation of angular momentum]. Today, the solar wind is so weak that the this mechanism is no longer efficient, so does not operate in any significant manner.

  38. As a non-scientist I have a question. After the stunning opening line, “For the first time, astronomers have observed solar systems in the making in great detail”, there is an equally stunning image of a protoplanetary disk. This image is marked, “Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.”
    Is this image a photo of a real object, or some kind of digitally compiled composite of real data, or is it just the usual popular science “An artist’s rendition of a protoplanetary disk”?? What star or nebula is depicted here? Should be clearly marked how this illustration was generated!
    If this is the direct image of a real star it represents an astounding advance in astronomical imagining. Otherwise it’s just some artist’s “robust model”.

  39. yeah cool post. i love the star and astrophysics stuff too.
    and it is great to see such generally strong skepticism!
    astrophysics and “cosmology” are in as about as bad of shape as climatology.
    Einstein gave a us plank, and instead using it to build a boat, folks have gone off trying to sail around the world on it.
    a nice 100 year (so far) dead end.
    observations and evidence contrary to theory are ignored, and explanations for them ridiculed. there may not be as much political money behind the “standard theory” as CAGW but the politics of the academy are enough to generate the same sort of “science”. And we are still talking about billions.

  40. As noted by Peter Hodges the standard model for physics and the cosmos is a worse joke than AGW. Those with real insight and ideas are immediately outcast.
    They took a wrong turn almost a century ago and are up to their armpits, in confusion and complications. Just like AGW proponents a blind alley into the forest, and cannot see the trees. The gnomes spending money like water at Cern looking for a saving grace, with charm or spin. With the climate nuts now almost defeated a site like this could prove to be a revelation and a revolution, for all that is wrong in physics.
    There are many scientists out there swimming against the current.

  41. There is a lecture by Halton Arp available on DVD. In his clear, easy-to-understand presentation he displays many pairs of quasars found along the axis of active galaxies.
    These quasars have similar redshifts to oneanother, an indication, Dr Arp thinks, that they have been expelled by active galaxies in pairs along their axis.
    Here is a Seyfort galaxy NGC 3516 (z=.009), with high redshift objects along its axis, supposed to be very far away from the galaxy itself. Perhaps chance could allow this arrangement to happen once, but Dr. Halton Arp has catalogued these instances all over the sky.
    The redshift that astronomers are using as a measure of distance is actually an indication of highly excited new material being expelled from galaxies.
    Best 20 bucks you’ll ever spend. Not everyone likes he implications though.

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