Astronomers reveal a new link between water and planet formation | Science & Technology

Researchers have found water vapour in the disc around a young star exactly where planets may be forming. Water is a key ingredient for life on Earth, and is also thought to play a significant role in planet formation. Yet, until now, we had never been able to map how water is distributed in a stable, cool disc — the type of disc that offers the most favourable conditions for planets to form around stars. The new findings were made possible thanks to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is a partner.

“I had never imagined that we could capture an image of oceans of water vapour in the same region where a planet is likely forming,” says Stefano Facchini, an astronomer at the University of Milan, Italy, who led the study published today in Nature Astronomy. The observations reveal at least three times as much water as in all of Earth’s oceans in the inner disc of the young Sun-like star HL Tauri, located 450 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Taurus.

“It is truly remarkable that we can not only detect but also capture detailed images and spatially resolve water vapour at a distance of 450 light-years from us ,” adds co-author Leonardo Testi, an astronomer at the University of Bologna, Italy. The ‘spatially resolved’ observations with ALMA allow astronomers to determine the distribution of water in different regions of the disc. “Taking part in such an important discovery in the iconic HL Tauri disc was beyond what I had ever expected for my first research experience in astronomy,” adds Mathieu Vander Donckt from the University of Liege, Belgium, who was a master’s student when he participated in the research.

A significant amount of water was found in the region where a known gap in the HL Tauri disc exists. Ring-shaped gaps are carved out in gas- and dust-rich discs by orbiting young planet-like bodies as they gather up material and grow. “Our recent images reveal a substantial…

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