A common sententia says we’re all made of stardust: the stuff of the cosmos is the stuff of our bodies. It’s a literal truth — we share with the galaxy 97 percent of the same sort of atoms; the human-building kind (carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, etc) grow denser toward the galaxy’s center. Once upon a time, we were fragments.
Recently, a set of astronomical images were released by scientists working on the Disk Substructures at High Angular Resolution Project (DSHARP) — images of still-forming planetary and star systems, their swirls and rings indicating the waxing and waning density of materials required to build planets. “Spirals and arcs in the density of the dust also points toward gravitational interactions between these disks and forming planets,” Caleb A. Scharf at Scientific American writes. The glowing circles look like fireflies — tiny fireworks — small heartbeats reverberating. Arranged together, they’re a diagram of small fires.
DSHARP is one of several programs utilizing the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), 66 antennae and dishes located in the Chilean Andes, on the Chajnantor plateau. At this high altitude, unobstructed by Earth’s atmosphere, the antennae have a clear-eyed view of the cosmos. While ALMA has captured such images before, these high-resolution shots capture systems that are just a few astronomical units, and some as large as 100 (an astronomical unit is about the distance from the Earth to the sun) — meaning they are quite young. They’ve given astronomers, says Charles Blue at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (which announced the findings), “new insights into the variety of features they contain and the speed with which planets can emerge.”
As Blue explains, astronomers struggled with the idea that once cosmic dust reaches a certain size, it would gravitationally fall in on their host star and never grow large enough to become a planet. But if they became rings — as captured in the DSHARP images — they could mature and become far denser, and create zones that give other particles more time to grow.
The bursts look like children’s drawings of planets and solar systems: ring-toss-Saturns and spheres that seem to pulse like wounds. One day, they’ll potentially become whole bodies, maybe contain life. For now, they’re stardust.