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DIAS scientists make major discovery on the formation of new stars

An international team, led by scientists from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), has directly observed for the first time how young stars are formed. Their findings have been published in the prestigious journal Nature this week.

The team detected how columns of matter rain onto a new-born star from its surrounding disc. Such discs, known as protoplanetary discs, not only give birth to stars but also planetary systems like our own.  

To make the discovery, the team used the high-precision GRAVITY ‘super-telescope’ at the European Southern Observatory (ESO). This very novel instrument combines the light of four of the largest telescopes in the World into one.

Explaining their work and its significance, Dr. Rebeca García López of DIAS and University College Dublin, who led the team, said: “Previously scientists suspected that new stars and planets were born from matter surrounding existing stars through a process called magnetospheric accretion. However, this was not confirmed until we carried out our ground-breaking study and saw first-hand the process in action.

“By using the sophisticated GRAVITY instrument, our team was able to analyse stars with an unprecedented level of detail. For the purposes of the study, we observed the star TW Hydra, which is the closest young star to Earth. We were able to see how matter from its surrounding disc is channelled onto the star, enabling it to gain weight. This makes us the first researchers to confirm the process by which new stars – and, ultimately, planets – are born.

Professor Tom Ray of DIAS’s School of Cosmic Physics, co-author of the work,  commenting today, said: “These research findings are highly significant because they enable scientists to better understand how stars like our Sun form, and how the discs surrounding these stellar embryos give rise to planets like the Earth. The success of this work highlights the value of the type of advanced research undertaken at DIAS, and the strong role our team plays in supporting advanced research both in Ireland and across the world.”

This work was in part supported by the European Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland. Ireland is the most recent member of the European Southern Observatory. The Nature paper is available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2613-1