A blurry red disk with a black sphere in the centre

Image: ESO/A. Müller, MPIA

Baby planet's birth caught on camera

New stars and planets are being born all the time, but it's not often that scientists get catch a glimpse of the process.

This cloudy planet is forming around a star called PDS 70, which lies about 370 light years from Earth.

The image was captured by a planet-hunting instrument called SPHERE, on the Very Large Telescope of the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

It is one of the clearest images ever captured of a young planet in a disc.

Scientists can already tell that the new planet is a gas giant, with a cloudy atmosphere and a mass several times that of Jupiter. Its surface is estimated to be hotter than any planet in our solar system, about 1,000°C.

 

Dr Ashley King is a planetary scientist at the Museum who is hoping to learn more about how the planets in this solar system formed, including Earth.

Ashley and his colleagues do that by studying meteorites, but images like this from astronomers can inform their work and help understand planetary formation. 

He says, 'It is an amazing discovery. Astronomers have been detecting planets beyond our solar system for a few years now, but this is the first time we have seen an image of that's not an artist's impression.

'I examine meteorites that come from asteroids - which are the building blocks of planets - in the hope of eventually figuring out how a cloud of dust and gas becomes the complex solar system we live in.

'And while we look at tiny, pristine meteorites in the lab at the Museum, astronomers are examining much bigger things outside the lab:  young stars and planets like the one in this photo. Sharing all our findings will ultimately tell us more about how solar systems come together.'

Because this planet is a gas giant just like Jupiter is, monitoring its growth could reveal more about how quickly Jupiter formed alongside Earth.

Hosted by a star

PDS 70 is a 5.4-million-year-old star surrounded by a huge disk of dust and gas. In the vast timescales of space, it is a newborn star itself. Our Sun is much older, having formed 4.6 billion years ago.

This baby planet is forming in a gap within the swirling disk of matter. As the planet develops, it will collect some of the material surrounding its host star and grow larger and larger.

In the above image, the planet can be seen in the inner rim of the disk's gap.

Graphics produced by IDL

Near infrared image of the PDS 70 disk. The young exoplanet is detected as a bright signal at the inner rim of the gap (dark region). The bar to the lower right indicates the linear scale of the image at a distance of 370 light years.

Image: ESO/A. Müller, MPIA.

 

The investigation that captured the image was led by Dr André Müller, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA).

He says, 'This discovery provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to test theoretical models of planet formation.'

Astronomers used a coronagraph to get the image, which blocked out the star's light, allowing experts to see the newly emerging light of the young planet.

Prof Thomas Henning, a director at MPIA , says, 'After ten years of developing new powerful astronomical instruments such as SPHERE, this discovery shows us that we are finally able to find and study planets at the time of their formation.

That is the fulfilment of a long-cherished dream.'

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