James Webb finds that rocky planets could form in extreme ra…

A special confluence of conditions is necessary for the formation of rocky planets like Earth, because not all stars in the universe are favorable for planet formation. Stars emit ultraviolet light, and the hotter the star burns, the more ultraviolet light it emits. This radiation can be so significant that it prevents planets from forming from the surrounding dust and gas. However, the James Webb Space Telescope recently examined a disk around a star that suggests it may be forming rocky planets, even though nearby massive stars are emitting huge amounts of radiation.

The disk of material around the star, called the protoplanetary disk, is located in the Lobster Nebula, one of the most extreme environments in our galaxy. This region contains massive stars that emit so much radiation that they could eat up a disk in less than a million years, scattering the material needed for the formation of planets. But the recently observed disk, codenamed XUE 1, appears to be an exception.

This is an artist's impression of a young star surrounded by a protoplanetary disk in which planets are forming.
This is an artist’s impression of a young star surrounded by a protoplanetary disk in which planets are forming. He

The researchers used James Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) to identify water, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, and acetylene in the disk. They are some of the building blocks for rocky planets and show that despite the high amount of UV radiation, the disk is similar to other planet-forming disks.

“We were surprised and excited because this is the first time that these molecules have been found in these extreme conditions,” one of the authors, Lars Kuipers of Radboud University, said in a statement.

The problem for this disk is that there are many massive stars nearby, so the disk is bombarded with UV radiation from many sources. This disk appears to be a little smaller than expected, but still appears to be capable of forming rocky planets. This means that rocky planets can form even in very extreme environments, if this particular disk is not external.

“XUE1 shows us that the conditions for rocky planet formation are present, so the next step is to investigate how common this is,” said lead researcher Maria Claudia Ramirez-Tanus of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. “We will observe other disks in the same region to determine the frequency with which these conditions can be observed.”

This research has been published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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