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Water Snow Lines Circling Baby Star Spotted For The First Time by Astronomers

Jul 14, 2016 03:09 AM EDT
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Astronomers recently caught a glimpse of the water snow lines around a young star.

The discovery of the interstellar snow line is important because of its vital role in the formation of planets around young stars. According to scientists, the rocky section forms planets like the Earth and Mars, while the snowy outlines form gaseous planets like Jupiter and Saturn.

The young star, which was named V883 Orionis, was found in the constellation Orion 1,350 light-years from the Earth. The water snow line was seen on radio wavelengths with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), which is a collection of radio telescopes in Chile and makes up the world's largest ground-based observatory.

"The ALMA observations came as a surprise to us," Lucas Cieza, astronomer at Diego Portales University in Chile and lead author of the study, said in a press release.

"Our observations were designed to image disk fragmentation, which is one of the proposed mechanisms for the formation of giant planets."

According to the researchers, an infant star is usually surrounded by orbiting gas, dust and debris. Most stars are often hot enough to cause the water in the disk to evaporate from the center, allowing ice to coat the debris beyond.

The V883 Orionis burns hotter than usual, and is in the midst of a burst of brightness and heat from sudden influx of new material, researchers said.

This made the star vaporize ice all the way out to 3.7 billion miles (or the average distance at which Pluto orbits the Sun), giving the observing astronomers the surprise of their lives.

"The fact that the location of the snow line can evolve with time has strong implications for planet formation," Brenda Matthews, an astronomer at the National Research Council of Canada who was not involved in the study, wrote on an accompanying column in the journal Nature where the work was published.

The discovery also confirms assumptions that stars have similar bands of ice and snow to those of the Sun's early environment, which led to what are now the solar system's planets.

"The distribution of water ice around a young star is fundamental to planet formation and even the development of life on Earth," Zhaohuan Zhu, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

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