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Astronomers Find Warped Planet-Forming Disk Around Star Trio

Astronomers have discovered a new type of cosmic phenomenon: a misaligned planet-forming disk around a triple-star system. The misaligned disk, made of dust that will eventually clump to form planets—from our point of view—is animated immediately below. And it kind of looks like an intergalactic version of Sauron’s Eye.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) described the discovery in a recent press release, which comes via Science News. In its release, the NRAO notes two independent teams of astronomers used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (or ALMA) to make the discovery. (ALMA is complex radio-telescope array in Northern Chile.) 

The two teams of astronomers, led by Jiaqing Bi at the University of Victoria in Canada, and Stefan Kraus from the University of Exeter in the U.K., discovered the misaligned disk around a trio of stars. Astronomers found the trio of stars, GW Orionis, back in 1949; it’s only now, however, that astronomers have found evidence for the misshapen disk.

Astronomers have discovered a misshapen planet-forming disk around a star trio for the first time.

Kraus et al., 2020; NRAO/AUI/NSF

As the below European Southern Observatory video notes, Bi and his team used near infrared and submillimeter telescopes to detect the warped, planet-forming disk. Along with its warp, the disk also exhibits disk tearing. Disk tearing is the process by which the planet-forming disk develops rings that have varied orientations in regards to their rotational axis.

“In our images, we see the shadow of the inner ring on the outer disk,” Kraus said in the NRAO release. That shadow, Kraus added, allowed the astronomers to measure the precise shape of the ring of dust casting it.

“We were surprised to see the strong misalignment of the inner ring,” Bi said in the NRAO release. “But the strange warp in the disk is confirmed by a twisted pattern that ALMA measured in the gas of the disk,” the astronomer added.

Bi, Klaus, and their teams offer two possible scenarios for the disk’s strange alignment. One possibility is the three stars’ gravitational pull tore apart the dusky disk. The other is that a newborn planet could be warping the disk thanks to its own gravitational pull.

Despite the dual possibilities, it seems the astronomers from both teams are leaning toward that latter explanation. In fact, Kraus said in the NRAO release that the inner ring contains enough dust to build 30 Earths. And if the astronomers even find one, it’ll be the first time a planet’s ever been observed around a trinary star system.

Astronomers have discovered a misshapen planet-forming disk around a star trio for the first time.

ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), S. Kraus & J. Bi; NRAO/AUI/NSF, S. Dagnello

What do you think about this strange planet-forming disk of dust? Do you think astronomers will indeed find planets in this triple-star system? Let’s talk about the gravity of this find in the comments!

Feature image: ESO