In this hypnotic photo, a young star called V960 Mon is encircled by giant arms of cosmic dust, which may eventually collapse to form gas giant planets as colossal as Jupiter.
There are two ways that planets tend to develop: core accretion and gravitational instability. In core accretion, bits of solid matter around a star collide and slowly snowball into a planet.
But with gravitational instability, gas and dust contract into clumps that collapse under their own gravity to form the core of a planet. This is thought to happen further away from the host star than core accretion, where the dust and gas are much cooler, leading to the formation of gas giants.
So far, though, there has been a lack of observations to establish exactly how planets arise due to gravitational instability.
Now, Philipp Weber at the University of Santiago, Chile, and his colleagues have used the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research (SPHERE) instrument at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile to detect the planet-forming process in action, creating the image above.
“No one had ever seen a real observation of gravitational instability happening at planetary scales – until now,” said Weber in a statement.
V960 Mon sits roughly 5000 light years away from Earth in the constellation Monoceros, whose name comes from the Greek for unicorn. Bursting with energy, the star is emitting powerful jets of gas, creating gigantic spiral arms that stretch out further than the distance across our entire solar system.
Weber and his colleagues also analysed previous observations of V960 Mon from another telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile, and realised that the spiral arms are undergoing what is known as fragmentation, which is the creation of clumps of gas and dust. This process is thought to precede planet-formation via gravitational instability.