Planetary birth revealed in best image yet from world’s most powerful telescope!

Planetary birth revealed in best image yet from world’s most powerful telescope ~ Rachel Feltman, The Washington Post’s Speaking of Science blog.

ESOcast 69 presents the result of the latest ALMA observations, which reveal extraordinarily fine detail that has never been seen before in the planet-forming disc around the young star HL Tauri. (ESO)

Protoplanetary disks are the source of planet formation, but until now we’ve only seen them as fuzzy blobs, or in artistic renderings. But in a new image from ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), we see the disk left behind after a star birth in stunning new clarity.

Stars form when gas and dust are crushed together by gravity. The leftover particles gather around the new star, forming the concentric disks you can see in the image above. Over time, these tiny particles group together to form rocks, and eventually asteroids — and even planets — can be born from the dust.

Observing protoplanetary disks is important for obvious reasons: The closer we get to watching a planet actually being born, the better we’ll understand our own planet’s origins.

This particular disk surrounds a young star named HL Tau, located around 450 light years from Earth in the constellation Taurus. The incredible resolution of the image is impressive, but we could see ALMA’s images get even more focused.

This video takes you 450 light-years away to HL Tauri in the constellation of Taurus and reveals the astonishing depth and detail that ALMA can now attain. The start of the sequence shows a wide view, including the Pleiades and Hyades naked eye star clusters. Zooming reveals detailed visible-light image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the final part shows the new ALMA image at millimeter wavelengths. (ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/NASA/ESA/N. Risinger)

ALMA, which is run as an international partnership between Europe, North America and East Asia, is a telescope made up of 66 high-precision antennas that can be moved into different configurations. These antennas capture radio waves from space, and when their data is combined, they can create images with five times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope.

But while ALMA is close to its final configuration, it’s not quite running at its maximum resolution yet. Researchers spaced the antennas as much as 15 kilometers apart to get the image above. In earthly terms, this configuration would allow the telescope to take a shot of a penny from 110 kilometers away.

In the near future, the satellites will be moved another full kilometer apart — further increasing the resolution.

NASA’s Cassini catches sunlight glinting off the oceans of Saturn’s moon!

NASA’s Cassini catches sunlight glinting off the oceans of Saturn’s moon ~  October 30, 2014.

Man, Cassini really is the best. The spacecraft, which orbits Saturn and is basically NASA’s pride and joy, keeps delivering both invaluable data and breathtaking photos. Including that one where Saturn looked like it had a creepy eye.

While it’s obviously a mosaic of several individual shots, the image above is certainly impressive. It’s the first time that one image shows both the polar seas of Titan (one of Saturn’s moons) and the aura of light caused by the sun hitting them. From NASA:

The sunglint, also called a specular reflection, is the bright area near the 11 o’clock position at upper left. This mirror-like reflection, known as the specular point, is in the south of Titan’s largest sea, Kraken Mare, just north of an island archipelago separating two separate parts of the sea.

These seas, which are made up of mostly methane and ethane, are on the planet’s poles — particularly in the north. The rest of the planet is mostly covered in sand dunes.

To the right of the yellow sunglint, the image also captures some bright methane clouds. It could be that these are producing liquid methane rain, keeping the polar seas full. And the bright outline that surrounds the sea (a “bathtub ring”) could represent the sea’s original outline, showing that it’s shrunk in size over time.

Rachel Feltman runs The Post’s Speaking of Science blog.


This near-infrared, color view from Cassini shows the sun glinting off of Titan’s north polar seas. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho)