Just as the number of planets discovered outside our solar system is large and growing — more than 3,700 confirmed at last count — so too is the number of ingenious ways to find exoplanets ever on the rise.
The first exoplanets were found by measuring the “wobble” in their host stars caused by the gravitational pull of the planets, then came the transit technique that measured dips in the light from stars as planets passed in front of them, followed by the direct imaging of moving objects deemed to be planets, and numerous more.
A new technique can now be added to the toolkit, one that is useful only in specific galactic circumstances but is nonetheless ingenious and intriguing.
By detecting unusual patterns in the flow of gas within the protoplanetary disk of a young star, two teams of astronomers have confirmed the distinct, telltale hallmarks of newly formed planets orbiting the infant star.
In other words, the astronomers found planets in the process of being formed, circling a star very early in its life cycle.
These results came thanks to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), and are presented in a pair of papers appearing in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Richard Teague, an astronomer at the University of Michigan and principal author on one of the papers, said that his team looked at “the localized, small-scale motion of gas in a star’s protoplanetary disk. This entirely new approach could uncover some of the youngest planets in our galaxy, all thanks to the high-resolution images coming from ALMA.”
To make their respective discoveries, each team analyzed the data from various ALMA observations of the young star HD 163296, which is about 4 million years old and located about 330 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius.
Rather than focusing on the dust within the disk, which was clearly imaged in an earlier ALMA observation, the astronomers instead studied the distribution and motion of carbon monoxide (CO) gas throughout the disk.
As explained in a release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which manages the American operations of the multi-national ALMA, molecules of carbon monoxide naturally emit a very distinctive millimeter-wavelength light that ALMA can observe.