The mysterious pattern of shadows in space reveals a bizarre phenomenon

The mysterious pattern of shadows in space reveals a bizarre phenomenon

Flickering shadows in the dust around a newborn star have revealed a rare picture of how the Solar System may have formed billions of years ago.

The changing light around a star called TW Hydrae suggests that the giant disks of material surrounding the star are displaced, orbiting at slightly different inclination angles.

The new signals suggest that there are three such wobbly discs – and their skewed alignment suggests the presence of multiple small planets in the making, their gravity tugging on the discs.

TW Hydrae has been of particular interest to planetary researchers for years. It is only about 8 million years old. This is very young for a star; The Sun, by comparison, is about 4.6 billion years old. It is so young that it has not yet begun to burn hydrogen in its core.

It is still gaining mass and contracting as it grows because gravity binds the star more tightly as it grows.

A rare picture of how the Solar System may have formed billions of years ago

It is about 60% the mass of the Sun, but has a slightly larger radius than the Sun. Indeed, TW Hydrae is thought to look a lot like the Sun when it was newborn, writes ScienceAlert.

As they form, stars absorb dust and gas from the surrounding space. This material arranges itself in a disk that rotates around the star, feeding it from the inner edge. The planets are born from this disc. Chunks of material collect, forming larger and larger clusters that collide with each other to form planets.

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Because they were born from a more or less flat disk, these planets orbit the star in a more or less flat plane around the star once everything is fully formed.

TW Hydrae is oriented in such a way that we can see this protoplanetary disk facing the ground. And since it’s only about 200 light-years away, we have front-row seats to a planetary construct that looks very similar to our home system, one that could provide insights into how the Solar System was born.

TW Hydrae is oriented in such a way that we can see the protoplanetary disk

In 2017, astronomers analyzing Hubble images observed a shadow orbiting TW Hydrae’s disk, completing a clockwise rotation every 16 years. At the time, they thought the shadow could be evidence of an unseen baby planet forming from material in the disk, causing parts of the disk to orbit on slightly different planes.

In 2021, astronomers turned Hubble toward TW Hydrae for more observations. And this is where things got a little weird.

The team devised some potential solutions and performed extensive modeling to see if they could figure out what was causing the strange shadow change. The results showed that the most likely explanation is not just one, but two fragile discs casting shadows on the third outer disc – suggesting the presence of a second, young planet.

The data suggest that the first disc lies between 5 and 6 AU of TW Hydrae, and the second lies between 6 and 7 AU.

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