Before something like the Solar System can be born, things in the general neighborhood start out as something known as a protostellar disk. These objects are essentially flat accretions of dust and debris that will go on to form stars and planets as everything inside of them clumps together and takes shape.
Because we understand protostellar disks to be one of the starting points for the formation of star systems, it can be quite exciting when we find them. That said, astronomers have just discovered one dubbed HH 212 within the Orion nebula that resembles the shape of a hamburger, and the findings have been published in the journal Science Advances.
Image Credit: Yin-Chih Tsai/ASIAA
For what it’s worth, finding protostellar disks has proven to be a difficult task. They’re not exactly large, perhaps 60 times the size of the distance from Earth to the Sun, so there’s very little surface area to get picked up by our space observation equipment.
Nevertheless, they astronomers just happened to be lucky when they stumbled upon HH 212 with high-resolution imaging while using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. Observing it provides a real-world learning experience for something that we’re not completely familiar with.
What we do know about HH 212 is that it contains a young protostar at the center and that the rest of the dust and debris is likely to condense into planetary bodies over a very long period of time. This material is getting manipulated by the protostar’s gravity; this is essentially the bonding agent that will make planet formation possible.
To give an idea of the protostar’s age – at 40,000 years old it’s just an infant compared to our Sun, which is estimated to be over 4.5 billion years old.
Very little is known about HH 212 at this point in time, but one of the details astronomers were able to uncover is how the protostellar disk exhibits an equatorial dark lane that has never been observed in any disk like it before. This dark lane is caused by differences in temperature between certain parts of the disk.
Image Credit: Lee et al./ALMA/ESO/NAOJ/NRAO
While there are tons of questions that have yet to be answered about protostellar disks, and now the interesting equatorial dark lane, astronomers hope that future observations of HH 212 and other protostellar disks, both of older and newer discoveries, will help to fill in the gaps of the puzzle.
But for now, at least we have this hamburger-shaped illustration to look at... and to get hungry over.