James Webb discovered that rocky planets can form in environments with extreme radiation

It takes a meeting of certain conditions for rocky planets like Earth to form, because not all stars in the universe support planet formation. Stars emit ultraviolet light, and the hotter a star burns, the more UV light it emits. This radiation can be so significant that it prevents the formation of planets from nearby dust and gas. However, the James Webb Space Telescope recently investigated a disk around a star that appears to be forming a rocky planet, even though the nearby massive star is emitting large amounts of radiation.

The disk of matter around the star, called the protoplanetary disk, is located in the Lobster Nebula, one of the most extreme environments in our galaxy. This region hosts massive stars that emit so much radiation that they can penetrate their disks in just a million years, scattering the material needed for planet formation. But a recently observed disk, named 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. ESO

The researchers used the James Webb Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) to identify water, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen cyanide and acetylene in the disk. These are some of the ingredients that make up rocky planets and show that these disks are similar to other planet-forming disks, even though they have high amounts of UV radiation.

“We were both surprised and delighted because this is the first time these molecules have been detected under these extreme conditions,” said one of the authors, Lars Cuijpers from Radboud University, in a study. statement.

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

“XUE 1 shows us that the conditions for rocky planets to form do exist, so the next step is to check how common these conditions are,” said lead researcher María Claudia Ramírez-Tannus of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. “We will observe other disks in the same region to determine the frequency of observations of this condition.”

This research was published in Astrophysical Journal.

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