Using the awesome power of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, astronomers have probed the protoplanetary disk of a young star system — with a twist.
ALMA is no stranger to protoplanetary disks; the array of 66 radio antennae in the Atacama desert is extremely sensitive to the emissions from the gas and dust surrounding stars. But this observation has revealed something more — there are two obvious dusty rings (orange) that are being sculpted by the presence of massive worlds, but between them (in blue) is a spiral gas structure. If there’s one thing I love it’s space spirals!
When comparing these observations with theoretical modeling of the system — called AB Aurigae, located about 470 light-years away — for that gas spiral to exist, there must be some interplanetary interplay between two exoplanets orbiting the star at 30 and 80 AU (astronomical units, where 1 AU is the average distance that Earth orbits the sun). The spiral is following the direction of rotation of the disk.
Besides looking really pretty, studies of these spiral structures help astronomers identify the presence of exoplanets and build a better understanding of the nature of protoplanetary disks.