You are witnessing the formation of a solar system just like ours, 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Taurus, as photographed in detail for the first time in history by the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimeter Array international observatory in Chile. I'm absolutely stunned.
Just like Catherine Vlahakis — ALMA Deputy Program Scientist and Lead Program Scientist for the ALMA Long Baseline Campaign — and everyone in the astronomy world is:
When we first saw this image we were astounded at the spectacular level of detail. HL Tauri is no more than a million years old, yet already its disc appears to be full of forming planets. This one image alone will revolutionise theories of planet formation.
It is indeed a revolutionary photo, one that reveals the very origin of planetary systems in incredible detail. I remember seeing illustrations of this — like the artist rendering below — in my science book and wondering how would it look in real life. The high level of detail in the photo above clearly shows the concentric rings in which matter is condensing. This matter will keep concentrating around one point, forming the planets. Some of those rings also mark their future orbits.
According to ALMA scientists, "this new result represents an enormous step forward in the understanding of how protoplanetary discs develop and how planets form." They are shocked that HL Tauri, the star at the center of the proto-planetary disc, is only a million-year-old Sun-like star.
Above: Where HL Tauri is located.
Above: A size comparison between the HL Tauri star system and our solar system.