Tracing the mass budget for planet formation

Aug 18, 2021

Planets form in gas- and dust-rich circumstellar disks around young stars. The structure and evolution of these disks profoundly affect every step of planet formation: from the formation of comet-size planetesimals, through the accretion of planetary atmospheres, to the migration of planets. Yet, we do not have a basic understanding of how these gas disks evolve and what mechanism drives the global evolution.

UW Astronomy's Professor Coco Zhang is leading a team of international astronomers to answer this fundamental question. Her team was just awarded 103 hours of time to use world's largest radio telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), shown in the image to the right. In the next two years, Coco and her team will use ALMA to survey a large sample of disks spanning the typical lifetime of protoplanetary disks. This program is called AGE-PRO: the ALMA survey of Gas Evolution in PROtoplanetary disks. It is the first homogeneous and sensitive survey to constrain the evolution of the mass and size of gas disks. The results will provide fundamental insights into the global evolution of protoplanetary disks, and serve as a key dataset to test current main theories of planet formation.

Observing time with ALMA is in great demand, so in order to be accepted proposals must be scientifically impeccable. In laying a firm foundation for her winning proposal, Coco drew on results from her pilot study with NOEMA, a similar but much smaller array of telescopes located in the French Alps, in which UW Astronomy recently acquired a share. This success shows an example of UW Astronomy research programs that use our private facilities as a springboard to launch studies with large national/international telescope facilities.

For more details about the AGE-PRO program, see the ALMA Cycle 8 proposal list.

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