The universe is full of wonders, and even after decades of study scientists are still discovering new phenomena. Researchers were recently examining a massive disk of dust around a young red dwarf star when they uncovered ripples, apparently rapidly moving, wavelike arches, racing through the dust cloud.
As Anthony Boccalatti from the Observatoire de Paris/CNRS/ UPMC/Paris-Diderot described it, “Our observations have shown something unexpected. The images from SPHERE show a set of unexplained features in the disk, which have an archlike or wavelike structure unlike anything that has ever been observed before.”
The waves are occurring around a red dwarf star called AU Microscopil, located some 32 lightyears from Earth. The star has only half the mass of the sun, and still in the earliest stages of its development, making it of special interest to the researchers.
Using data from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, they found five separate arches. Looking back on data from the Hubble Space Telescope in 2010 and 2011, scientists discovered the same phenomena had already occurred before. The scientists had to reprocess the images from the Hubble, and managed to gather enough information to track and analyze the movement of the phenomena.
Researchers concluded that the waves were moving at nearly 25,000 miles per hour.
Scientists have been watching AU Microscopii, or AU Mic for short, closely to see if they could uncover information about early planet formation in the dust disk. In 2007 they did indeed uncovered some signs planetary precursors.
As scientists are just now digging into the discovery, they are not yet sure of what the wave-like structures are. Scientists do suspect, however, that they could be related to AU Mic’s flares, as the star is known for its high level of flare activity. For now, however, all theories remain highly speculative.
Early planet formation
The mysterious discovery of the pulses through the dust cloud were actually discovered on accident. Scientists were initially more interested in early planetary formations. The current theory is that a star and its planets are formed out of a collapsing cloud of dust, called a nebula. As the nebula collapses, the disk of dust tends to flatten and spin.
Eventually, material starts to clump together in the now flattened dust disk. Then gravity takes over and those small clumps grow bigger and bigger, with some of them eventually becoming planets.
Interested in learning more about planet formation in early dust clouds? Check out this YouTube clip:
The Most Advanced Tools Are Being Used
Researchers were able to study the never been seen structures by using the aptly named Very Large Telescope (VLT). As you can guess, this telescope is indeed very large. Operated by the European Southern Observatory, the telescope is located in the remote northern deserts of Chile, far from light pollution, and located nearly 9,000 feet in the air.
The telescope operates on both infrared and visible wavelengths, and is considered to be the world’s most productive ground-based telescope. Only the Hubble has produced more data, but given that Hubble is a satellite, it has a huge advantage.
As many discoveries and as much data as the VLT has produced, the most recent discovery is among the most important.
The VLT was able to make this monumental discovery with the help of a new tool called SPHERE, which stands for Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch. According to the European Southern Observatory, “SPHERE is the extreme adaptive optics system and coronagraphic facility at the VLT. Its primary science goal is imaging, low-resolution spectroscopic, and polarimetric characterization of extra-solar planetary systems at optical and near-infrared wavelengths.”
Looking for an English translation? Using a wide range of data gathering tools SPHERE allows scientists to study the planets and dust clouds around far away stars.
If you’re looking for a quick glimpse of the VLT and SPHERE, you can check out this video.