The tiny dot in this image may be the first look at exomoons in the making

A new finding is some of the strongest evidence yet that planets around other stars have moons

star PDS 70 surrounded by dusty ring of debris, with bright dot inside ring that may be a moon forming

Observations by the ALMA telescope array in Chile show the young star PDS 70 surrounded by a dusty ring of debris. The bright dot just inside that ring is a disk of potentially moon-forming debris surrounding a young planet.

ALMA/ESO, NAOJ and NRAO, M. Benisty et al

New telescope images may provide the first view of moons forming outside the solar system.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile glimpsed a dusty disk of potentially moon-forming material around a baby exoplanet about 370 light-years from Earth. The Jupiter-like world is surrounded by enough material to make up to 2.5 Earth moons, researchers report online July 22 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. Observations of this system could offer new insight into how planets and moons are born around young stars.

ALMA observed two planets, dubbed PDS 70b and 70c, circling the star PDS 70 in July 2019. Unlike most other known exoplanets, these two Jupiter-like worlds are still forming — gobbling up material from the disk of gas and dust swirling around their star (SN: 7/2/18). During this formation process, planets are expected to wrap themselves in their own debris disks, which control how planets pack on material and form moons.

Around PDS 70c, ALMA spotted a disk of dust about as wide as Earth’s orbit around the sun. With previously reported exomoon sightings still controversial, the new observations offer some of the best evidence yet that planets orbiting other stars have moons (SN: 4/30/19).

Unlike PDS 70c, 70b does not appear to have a moon-forming disk. That may be because it has a narrower orbit than PDS 70c, which is nearly as far from its star as Pluto is from the sun. That puts PDS 70c closer to an outer disk of debris surrounding the star.

close-up of potential moon forming inside ring of debris around planet PDS 70c
Just inside a ring of debris surrounding a young star is the planet PDS 70c, which is surrounded by its own disk of possible moon-forming material (bright dot at center).ALMA/ESO, NAOJ and NRAO, M. Benisty et al

“C is getting all the material from the outer disk, and b is getting starved,” says study coauthor Jaehan Bae, an astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.

“In the past, b must have gotten some material in its [disk], and it could have already formed moons,” Bae says. But to make the new images, ALMA observed wavelengths of light emitted by sand-sized dust grains, not large objects, so those moons would not be visible.

Maria Temming

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News for Students. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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