SPHERE: Bizarrely Shaped Dust Rings Around Young Stars Captured in Spectacular Images

An international team of astronomers has released spectacular new images of strange discs of material surrounding nearby young stars, with a fascinating variety of shapes, sizes and structures.

These discs contain gas, dust and even young planets that are still in the process of forming. Essentially, they are the building blocks of planetary systems. Some contain bright rings, others contain dark rings, while some even resemble hamburgers or yo-yos.

The discs can be seen from a variety of angles in the photos, with some orientated face-on so the entire disc is visible, while others simply show a narrow edge.

The stars are known as T Tauri stars—very young stars, usually less than 10 million years old, which vary in brightness. In fact, our own sun may have looked similar in the early stages of the solar system's formation.

The young stars are located anywhere between 230 and 500 light-years away from Earth, which is relatively close in galactic terms. (For context, the entire Milky Way is roughly 100,000 light-years across.) Despite this, it is very difficult for astronomers to capture good images of the discs, as the light reflected off them is faint and they are often outshone by their parent stars.

However, researchers were able to image these discs in unprecedented detail using the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope in Chile, which is able to suppress the light of stars to better observe the regions around them.

New images from the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope are revealing the dusty discs surrounding nearby young stars in greater detail than previously achieved. They show a bizarre variety of shapes, sizes and structures, including the likely effects of planets still in the process of forming. ESO/H. Avenhaus et al./E. Sissa et al./DARTT-S and SHINE collaborations

Because of this capability, SPHERE (which stands for Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research) is mainly used to discover and image nearby exoplanets. But it also very effective at capturing these dusty discs, the study of which is important to our understanding of planetary formation.

The images were taken as part of the DARTTS-S (Discs Around T Tauri Stars with SPHERE) survey and presented in a paper set to be published in The Astrophysical Journal, which was led by Henning Avenhaus from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany.

Recently, astronomers released more stunning images of our closest galactic neighbor, which were also taken with the ESO's Very Large Telescope.