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Radio Telescope Gets Best-Ever View of Planetary Birth

Image: HL Tauri
This is the sharpest image ever taken by ALMA — sharper than is routinely achieved in visible light with the Hubble Space Telescope. It shows the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star HL Tauri. These new ALMA observations reveal substructures within the disc that have never been seen before and even show the possible positions of planets forming in the dark patches within the system. ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

A huge radio telescope in Chile has captured the best-ever image of planets forming around a distant star, researchers say.

The spectacular view of planet birth — taken by the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array, or ALMA, in northern Chile — shows numerous concentric rings in the disk of dust and gas surrounding HL Tau, a sunlike star found about 450 light-years from Earth.

"These features are almost certainly the result of young planetlike bodies that are being formed in the disk," ALMA deputy director Stuartt Corder said in a statement. "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." [Amazing ALMA Radio Telescope Images]

The stunning detail and clarity of the new ALMA radio telescope image surprised scientists.

"The first time I saw this image, I thought it was actually probably a simulation. It was just way too good," Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia, said in a new video about the planet-formation image. The NRAO manages ALMA operations on behalf of North American astronomers.

The new image is the sharpest ever captured by ALMA, researchers said. In fact, it's sharper than most photos taken in visible light by NASA's famous Hubble Space Telescope, they added.

HL Tau is veiled by dust and gas, making the star tough to observe in visible light. But ALMA was able to pierce this veil because the telescope is optimized to view the universe in much longer wavelengths, which fall between the radio and infrared portions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

— Mike Wall, Space.com

This is a condensed version of a report from Space.com. Read the full report. Follow Mike Wall on Twitter and Google+. Follow Space.com on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.