A snow line has been imaged in a far-off infant planetary system for the very first time. The snow line, located in the disc around the Sun-like star TW Hydrae, promises to tell us more about the formation of planets and comets, the factors that decide their composition, and the history of the Solar System.
Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have taken the first ever image of the snow line in an infant planetary system. On Earth, snow lines form at high altitudes where falling temperatures turn the moisture in the air into snow. This line is clearly visible on a mountain, where the snow-capped summit ends and the rocky face begins.
The snow lines around young stars form in a similar way, in the distant, colder reaches of the dusty discs from which planetary systems form. Starting from the star and moving outwards, water (H2O) is the first to freeze, forming the first snow line. Further out from the star, as temperatures drop, more exotic molecules can freeze and turn to snow, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and carbon monoxide (CO). These different snows give the dust grains a sticky outer coating and play an essential role in helping the grains to overcome their usual tendency to break up in collisions, allowing them to become the crucial building blocks of planets and comets. The snow also increases how much solid matter is available and may dramatically speed up the planetary formation process.
Each of these different snow lines — for water, carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide — may be linked to the formation of particular kinds of planets. Around a Sun-like star in a planetary system like our own, the water snow line would correspond to a distance between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and the carbon monoxide snow line would correspond to the orbit of Neptune.
The snow line spotted by ALMA is the first glimpse of the carbon monoxide snow line, around TW Hydrae, a young star 175 light-years away from Earth. Astronomers believe this budding planetary system shares many of the same characteristics of the Solar System when it was just a few million years old.