An astounding find made 5,000 light-years from Earth suggests planets may form in an entirely new way than previously seen.
A team of international scientists used telescopes belonging to the European Southern Observatory to analyse stellar material surrounding the star V960 Mon in the constellation Monoceros.
The astronomers said their ‘incredible discovery’ revealed dust particles crashing into one another to form much larger clumps, which they believe could collapse to form new giant planets like Jupiter.
‘This discovery is truly captivating as it marks the very first detection of clumps around a young star that have the potential to give rise to giant planets,’ said Alice Zurlo, a researcher at the Universidad Diego Portales in Chile.
Astronomers believe giant planets like Jupiter form either by a process known as core accretion – when dust grains collect together and build into a larger body – or by a phenomenon known as gravitational instability – when large fragments of the material around a star contract and collapse.
To date, researchers have only found evidence for core accretion.
‘No-one had ever seen a real observation of gravitational instability happening at planetary scales – until now,’ said Philipp Weber, a researcher at the University of Santiago in Chile.
V960 Mon first caught the eye of scientists in 2014 when it suddenly grew brighter in the distant sky.
Observations by the Sphere instruments on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), located on Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, showed V960 had increased its brightness by more than 20 times.
This prompted astronomers to go back and look at data gathered by another telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (Alma).
The observations from Alma – which looked into the structure of V960 Mon – revealed the stellar material surrounding V960 Mon was assembling together to form a series of intricate spiral arms, with distances greater than the solar system.
Ms Zurlo said: ‘With Alma, it became apparent that the spiral arms are undergoing fragmentation, resulting in the formation of clumps with masses akin to those of planets.’
Sebastian Perez, also from the University of Santiago, said: ‘Our group has been searching for signs of how planets form for over 10 years and we couldn’t be more thrilled about this incredible discovery.’
As part of the next steps, astronomers will use another ESO instrument – the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) – to examine the star system in even greater detail.
Mr Weber said: ‘The ELT will enable the exploration of the chemical complexity surrounding these clumps, helping us find out more about the composition of the material from which potential planets are forming.’
The research is published in the journal Astrophysical Letters.