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Birth of Planets Revealed in Astonishing Detail in ALMA’s ‘Best Image Ever’

Astronomers have captured the best image ever of planet formation around an infant star as part of the testing and verification process for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array’s (ALMA) new high-resolution capabilities.

https://public.nrao.edu/images/non-gallery/2014/c-blue/11-05-HL-Tau/HLTau_nrao.jpg
ALMA image of the young star HL Tau and its protoplanetary disk. This best image ever of planet formation reveals multiple rings and gaps that herald the presence of emerging planets as they sweep their orbits clear of dust and gas. Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

This revolutionary new image reveals in astonishing detail the planet-forming disk surrounding HL Tau, a Sun-like star located approximately 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus.

ALMA uncovered never-before-seen features in this system, including multiple concentric rings separated by clearly defined gaps. These structures suggest that planet formation is already well underway around this remarkably young star.

“These features are almost certainly the result of young planet-like bodies that are being formed in the disk. This is surprising since HL Tau is no more than a million years old and such young stars are not expected to have large planetary bodies capable of producing the structures we see in this image,” said ALMA Deputy Director Stuartt Corder.

All stars are believed to form within clouds of gas and dust that collapse under gravity. Over time, the surrounding dust particles stick together, growing into sand, pebbles, and larger-size rocks, which eventually settle into a thin protoplanetary disk where asteroids, comets, and planets form.

Once these planetary bodies acquire enough mass, they dramatically reshape the structure of their natal disk, fashioning rings and gaps as the planets sweep their orbits clear of debris and shepherd dust and gas into tighter and more confined zones.

The new ALMA image reveals these striking features in exquisite detail, providing the clearest picture to date of planet formation. Images with this level of detail were previously only seen in computer models and artist concepts. ALMA, living up to its promise, has now provided direct proof that nature and theory are very much in agreement.

“This new and unexpected result provides an incredible view of the process of planet formation. Such clarity is essential to understand how our own Solar System came to be and how planets form throughout the Universe,” said Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Virginia, which manages ALMA operations for astronomers in North America.

HL Tau is hidden in visible light behind a massive envelope of dust and gas. Since ALMA observes at much longer wavelengths, it is able to peer through the intervening dust to study the processes right at the core of this cloud. “This is truly one of the most remarkable images ever seen at these wavelengths. The level of detail is so exquisite that it’s even more impressive than many optical images. The fact that we can see planets being born will help us understand not only how planets form around other stars but also the origin of our own Solar System,” said NRAO astronomer Crystal Brogan.

ALMA’s new high-resolution capabilities were achieved by spacing the antennas up to 15 kilometers apart. This baseline at millimeter wavelengths enabled a resolution of 35 milliarcseconds, which is equivalent to a penny as seen from more than 110 kilometers away.

“Such a resolution can only be achieved with the long baseline capabilities of ALMA and provides astronomers with new information that is impossible to collect with any other facility, including the best optical observatories,” noted ALMA Director Pierre Cox.

These long baselines fulfill one of ALMA’s major objectives and mark an impressive technological and engineering milestone. Future observations at ALMA’s longest possible baseline of 16 kilometers will produce even clearer images and continue to expand our understanding of the cosmos.

“This observation illustrates the dramatic and important results that come from NSF supporting world-class instrumentation such as ALMA,” said Fleming Crim, the National Science Foundation assistant director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences. “ALMA is delivering on its enormous potential for revealing the distant Universe and is playing a unique and transformational role in astronomy.”

Original press release: https://public.nrao.edu/news/pressreleases/planet-formation-alma

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Plaskett Research Associate, NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL of CANADA (NRC)

Due date: December 12, 2014

Plaskett Research Associate, NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL of CANADA (NRC)
National Science Infrastructure Portfolio (NSI)
NRC Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics
Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (DAO)
5071 West Saanich Road
Victoria, BC V9E 2E7
CANADA
Fax: 709-772-4541
Telephone: 709-772-5012
E-mail enquiries: NRC.ExtHiring-EmbaucheExt.CNRC@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

Related URL:  http://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/eng/careers/index.html

Desired starting date: 1 September 2015

The National Research Council (NRC) is pleased to announce the 2014 competition for two Plaskett Postdoctoral Research Associate (RA) positions tenable at DAO in Victoria, BC, Canada. The successful candidates will be outstanding recent doctoral graduates in astrophysics who are highly motivated to exploit facilities administered by NRC for Canadian astronomers and contribute to projects led by NRC Herzberg staff members.  We are particularly seeking candidates who will contribute to one or more of the following research areas:

•Exoplanets and debris disks (direct detection, planetary atmospheres, dynamical evolution, collisional evolution, composition), utilizing GEMINI, ALMA, HST and/or exploitation of existing large survey data from Kepler, Spitzer, Herschel, WISE and other missions. Participation in the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) Exoplanet Survey, which has both exoplanet and disk components, is a possibility.  Candidates with expertise in the following areas will be given the highest consideration: expertise in direct detection of exoplanets and their characterization; dynamical modelling of disk/exoplanet systems; modelling of dust evolution in debris disks; synthesis of existing survey data). [NRC staff members: JJ Kavelaars, Christian Marois, Brenda Matthews, Jean-Pierre Véran]

•Outer solar system bodies (accretion processes, size-frequency distributions, surface properties, orbital dynamics, binaries, space-craft exploration), utilizing CFHT, GEMINI, ALMA, HST, Subaru, and the New Horizons spacecraft with possible participation in the Outer Solar System Origins Survey.  Candidates with expertise in the following areas will be given the highest consideration:  survey observations; modeling of orbital distributions; modeling of orbital evolution of resonant and scattering objects; observational studies of surface properties; modeling of surface processes. [NRC staff members: JJ Kavelaars]

•Star or planet formation processes (protostellar evolution, cluster formation, circumstellar disks, super-star clusters in external galaxies), utilizing ALMA, the Jansky VLA, or other facilities, and leveraging results from Herschel, Spitzer, or JCMT legacy programs (e.g., the JCMT Gould Belt Survey). Candidates with expertise in the following areas will be given the highest consideration: observations or modeling of planet formation processes within proto-planetary disks; regulation of star formation processes and the role of environment; episodic accretion and the luminosity problem in young stellar objects; origins of structure and energy balance in molecular clouds; star formation in extreme environments. [NRC staff members: James Di Francesco, Doug Johnstone, Lewis Knee, Brenda Matthews, Gerald Schieven]

•Photometric and spectroscopic studies of the structure and stellar content of the Milky Way, Local Group, and other nearby galaxies, including all areas of research associated with the broad field of ‘near-field cosmology.’ Examples of programs currently led by NRC Herzberg staff include the Legacy for the u-band all-sky Universe (Luau), a new large CFHT program beginning in 2015 to obtain over ~3500 square degrees of deep u-band imaging of the Milky Way halo; the Pan-Andromeda Archaeological Survey (PAndAS) and associated datasets; and optical and near IR observations of Galactic globular clusters (including high spatial resolution Gemini/GeMS MCAO studies) [NRC staff members: Pat Côté, Stéphanie Côté, Tim Davidge, Alan McConnachie, Peter Stetson]

•Multi-wavelength investigations of galaxies and clusters, including studies of galaxy distances, dynamics, and structural properties; super-massive black holes and galactic nuclei; and star clusters and star formation at UV, optical, IR and sub-mm wavelengths. NRC-led projects include wide-field, high-resolution optical and IR imaging of nearby field and cluster (including Coma, Virgo and Fornax) galaxies with CFHT, VISTA, and the Blanco 4-m telescope, as well as numerous related spectroscopic programmes on 4-10 m-class facilities. [NRC staff members: John Blakeslee, Pat Côté, Stéphanie Côté, Tim Davidge, Laura Ferrarese, John Hutchings, David Schade, Luc Simard]

•Cosmological evolution of galaxies including physical processes such as accretion, outflow, feedback, metal enrichment, star formation, super-massive black hole growth, mergers, and strong lensing. Candidates should have an observational background or an interest in constraining theories with observations.  Research in this area at NRC is mostly based on multi-wavelength (radio, mm, IR, optical, UV, X-ray) observations of star formation and AGN activity at high redshift. [NRC staff members: Laura Ferrarese, John Hutchings, Chris Willott]

The successful candidates are expected to work independently and perform original research in collaboration with NRC Herzberg staff members associated with projects most relevant to his or her area of expertise.  Additionally, candidates are expected to keep an active engagement with the community to advance NRC Herzberg’s mandate.  In particular, NRC Herzberg is involved in several ground- and space-based telescopes of the present (e.g., ALMA, CFHT, Gemini, JCMT) and future (e.g., JWST, CASTOR, Astrosat, WFIRST, Astro-H, SKA, MSE, TMT), as well as in scientific data preservation, distribution, and analysis techniques.  The Canadian Astronomy Data Centre, home to the Canadian Virtual Observatory, the CANFAR cloud computing network, and data archives including, e.g., CFHT, Canadian Galactic Plane Survey, Gemini, HST, and JCMT, are also located at NRC Herzberg.  Candidates with interests in developing studies of next-generation instrumentation and facilities will be given hig
hest consideration.

The successful candidates will share with other Plaskett RAs the organization of the weekly seminar series that runs September-April, and have access via Canada’s TAC process to the astronomical facilities operated by NRC, as well as other facilities with open competition.  The positions will constitute initial appointments of two years, which may be extended for one further year (subject to performance and availability of funds). In addition to highly competitive benefits and salary, Plaskett RAs will receive support for observing and conference travel, page charges, and access to professionally managed computers.

Applicants must have acquired their Ph.D. within the last five years or expect to obtain their degree before taking up the position.  Applications should be made by 12 December 2014 via the process described at the URL provided.

NRC is an equal opportunity employer.