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ALMA discovers trio of infant planets around newborn star

(13 June 2018 - ALMA) Two independent teams of astronomers have used ALMA to uncover convincing evidence that three young planets are in orbit around the infant star HD 163296. Using a novel planet-finding technique, the astronomers identified three disturbances in the gas-filled disc around the young star: the strongest evidence yet that newly formed planets are in orbit there. These are considered the first planets to be discovered with ALMA.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has transformed our understanding of protoplanetary discs — the gas- and dust-filled planet factories that encircle young stars. The rings and gaps in these discs provide intriguing circumstantial evidence for the presence of protoplanets. Other phenomena, however, could also account for these tantalising features.

But now, using a novel planet-hunting technique that identifies unusual patterns in the flow of gas within a planet-forming disc around a young star, two teams of astronomers have each confirmed distinct, telltale hallmarks of newly formed planets orbiting an infant star.

ALMA has uncovered convincing evidence that three young planets are in orbit around the infant star HD 163296. Using a novel planet-finding technique, astronomers have identified three discrete disturbances in the young star’s gas-filled disc: the strongest evidence yet that newly formed planets are in orbit there. These are considered the first planets discovered with ALMA.

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This image shows part of the ALMA data set at one wavelength and reveals a clear “kink” in the material, which indicates unambiguously the presence of one of the planets. (courtesy: ESO, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); Pinte et al.)

“Measuring the flow of gas within a protoplanetary disc gives us much more certainty that planets are present around a young star,” said Christophe Pinte of Monash University in Australia and Institut de Planétologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble (Université de Grenoble-Alpes/CNRS) in France, and lead author on one of the two papers. “This technique offers a promising new direction to understand how planetary systems form.”

To make their respective discoveries, each team analysed ALMA observations of HD 163296, a young star about 330 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer). This star is about twice the mass of the Sun but is just four million years old — just a thousandth of the age of the Sun.

“We looked at the localised, small-scale motion of gas in the star’s protoplanetary disc. This entirely new approach could uncover some of the youngest planets in our galaxy, all thanks to the high-resolution images from ALMA,” said Richard Teague, an astronomer at the University of Michigan and principal author on the other paper.

Rather than focusing on the dust within the disc, which was clearly imaged in earlier ALMA observations, the astronomers instead studied carbon monoxide (CO) gas spread throughout the disc. Molecules of CO emit a very distinctive millimetre-wavelength light that ALMA can observe in great detail. Subtle changes in the wavelength of this light due to the Doppler effect reveal the motions of the gas in the disc.

The team led by Teague identified two planets located approximately 12 billion and 21 billion kilometres from the star. The other team, led by Pinte, identified a planet at about 39 billion kilometres from the star.

The two teams used variations on the same technique, which looks for anomalies in the flow of gas — as evidenced by the shifting wavelengths of the CO emission — that indicate the gas is interacting with a massive object.

The technique used by Teague, which derived averaged variations in the flow of the gas as small as a few percent, revealed the impact of multiple planets on the gas motions nearer to the star. The technique used by Pinte, which more directly measured the flow of the gas, is better suited to studying the outer portion of the disc. It allowed the authors to more accurately locate the third planet, but is restricted to larger deviations of the flow, greater than about 10%.

In both cases, the researchers identified areas where the flow of the gas did not match its surroundings — a bit like eddies around a rock in a river. By carefully analysing this motion, they could clearly see the influence of planetary bodies similar in mass to Jupiter.

This new technique allows astronomers to more precisely estimate protoplanetary masses and is less likely to produce false positives. “We are now bringing ALMA front and centre into the realm of planet detection,” said coauthor Ted Bergin of the University of Michigan.

Both teams will continue refining this method and will apply it to other discs, where they hope to better understand how atmospheres are formed and which elements and molecules are delivered to a planet at its birth.


This research was presented in two papers to appear in the same edition of the Astrophysical Journal Letters. The first is entitled “Kinematic evidence for an embedded protoplanet in a circumstellar disc”, by C. Pinte et al. and the second “A Kinematic Detection of Two Unseen Jupiter Mass Embedded Protoplanets”, by R. Teague et al.

About ALMA

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of ESO, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI). ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA. ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It has 15 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a strategic partner. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its world-leading Very Large Telescope Interferometer as well as two survey telescopes, VISTA working in the infrared and the visible-light VLT Survey Telescope. ESO is also a major partner in two facilities on Chajnantor, APEX and ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre Extremely Large Telescope, the ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.