Scientists see planet being born for the first ever time

The new planet can be seen tearing through the disc of material that surrounds its young star

Andrew Griffin
Monday 02 July 2018 10:28 BST
(ESO/A. Müller et al)

Scientists have seen a newborn planet being formed for the first time ever.

The stunning images, taken using the ESO's Very Large Telescope, offer an unprecedented view of the formation of planets. And the discovery could help us understand how planets are formed in much more detail than ever before.

Until now, the act of planet formation has usually been hidden by a veil of dust. But in the new study astronomers led by a group at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy have finally been able to capture a spectacularly clear image of a planet breaking through the ‘disc’ from which it is formed.

The pictures show the young planet, named PDS 70b, tearing its way through the planet-forming material that surrounds the young star.

It is visible as a bright light just to the right of the black part at the centre of the image. The planet is roughly three billion kilometres from the central star, about the same as the distance between Uranus and the Sun.

The dark region that can be seen in the middle of the photo is because of a coronagraph – a mask that blocks the blinding light of the central star and allows astronomers to detect its much fainter disc and planetary companion. It is that mask that allows the planet to be formed, since otherwise the bright light of the star would overwhelm any light coming from the planet itself.

"These discs around young stars are the birthplaces of planets, but so far only a handful of observations have detected hints of baby planets in them," said Miriam Keppler, who led the team who found the still-forming planet. "The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc."

As the first planet for scientists to get a confirmed view of, PDS 70b will serve as a useful test of theories about how planets come to exist. They will be able to explore the atmospheric and physical properties and compare them with how planets are expected to form.

"Keppler's results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly-understood early stages of planetary evolution," said André Müller, leader of the second team to investigate the young planet. "We needed to observe a planet in a young star's disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation."

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