An international collaboration of astronomers that includes Jeff Bary, Colgate associate professor of physics and astronomy, has published an article about the discovery of a “planet-forming lifeline” in a nearby triple-star system in the journal Nature.

Using the recently commissioned Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) located in the Atacama desert in Chile, the group, led by Anne Dutrey of the Observatoire de Bordeaux in France, found direct evidence of material passing from a large outer disk of material inward toward a smaller, inner disk surrounding the singleton star in the system.

The implications of such a streamer of material for the likelihood of planet formation occurring around the single star are profound, according to the astronomers.

At the age of this system, which is estimated to be roughly a few million years, the inner disk should have already disappeared. The streamer of material that the popular science articles are calling a “planet-forming lifeline” is providing the raw materials necessary to sustain the inner disk long enough for planets to form.

In addition, Bary said the outer disk may also be capable of forming a planet, one that would orbit all three of the inner stars. In that case, GG Tau A may harbor both circumstellar planet(s) and circumtrinary planets (planets that orbit three suns). A planet with three suns would be a system like no other detected to date.

“For me, the observations of the gas streamer are a glimpse at the complex processes that lead to the formation of one type — albeit a very complex type — of planetary system,” said Bary.  “Our group will continue studying the GG Tau A systems and its similarly complicated neighbors in the nearby Taurus-Auriga star forming region.”

The paper, which appeared in the October 30 issue of Nature, has been widely discussed in the media. Articles have appeared in Astronomy Magazine, National Geographic, and on Smithsonian.com.

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