ALMA, which is an interferometer consisting of 66 radio antennae, can peer into the TW Hydrae system with astounding precision. During its studies of the star's dusty protoplanetary disk astronomers have been able to use it as a kind of protoplanetary "petri dish" owing to its close proximity to Earth (at a distance of only 175 light-years) and its fortuitous alignment. The disk is almost perfectly facing us, allowing astronomers to study planetary birth in action.
By studying two different wavelengths of radio emissions from the warm dust in the TW Hydrae disk, different sizes of dust particles can be studied. According to theoretical models of the protoplanetary disk, the dark rings embedded inside the bright disk should contain smaller dust particles than the rest of the disk if a baby exoplanet is present.
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Sure enough, in research carried out by Takashi Tsukagoshi and his team at Ibaraki University, Japan, the most prominent gap, located at around 22 AU (22 times the Earth-sun distance) contains few large particles and is filled with smaller dust particles.
According to their models, should a planet be forming inside this dark ring, frictional processes are causing larger dust particles to be forced out of the ring as the baby exoplanet orbits the star. Smaller dust particles, however, remain unaffected and will preferentially fill the dark ring.
With this information, the researchers have been able to calculate the mass and probable composition of the planet. By their reckoning, this sun-like star is in the process of forming a baby ice giant exoplanet, much like the solar system's Uranus or Neptune.
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"Combined with the orbit size and the brightness of TW Hydrae, the planet would be an icy giant planet," said Tsukagoshi.
By studying this very young star system, astronomers don't only have a ringside seat of the complexities of planetary formation, they are looking back in time when our sun was a youngster and how some of the biggest planets in our solar system likely formed. Fascinating.
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