Scientists image exoplanet in process of formation

Direct observation of baby planets will provide scientists with new insight into poorly understood planet formation process.

Scientists have captured the first ever image of a baby exoplanet in the process of forming within the protoplanetary disk of gas and dust surrounding its parent star.

Using the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, researchers obtained a clear image of the forming planet in orbit around the 5.4-million-year-old dwarf star PDS 70, approximately 370 light years from Earth.

SPHERE is an exoplanet-hunting instrument that acts as a coronagraph, which blocks the light of stars, enabling scientists to detect dim orbiting planets.

The newborn gas giant, known as PDS 70b, can be seen in the image as a bright point located to the right of the blocked-out star.

“These disks 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 study leader Miriam Keppler of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, in a public statement.

“The problem is that, until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disk.”

She and her colleagues photographed the forming planet after studying current and archival observations of the star via the VLT and an instrument at Hawaii’s Gemini Observatory.

According to the research team’s analysis, the planet is between two and three times larger than Jupiter and hotter than any planet in our solar system, with an estimated surface temperature of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius).

Although it is extremely hot, PDS 70b orbits its star at a distance of 1.9 billion miles (three billion km), approximately the distance at which Uranus orbits our Sun.

Its high temperature is normal for a newborn gas giant even at such a great distance, as very young planets retain high levels of heat left over from their formation processes.

Observing a planet in the process of forming around a young star provide scientists with crucial insights into the planet formation process, noted Andre Muller, also of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, who led a second study on the star and planet.

“Kepler’s results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly understood early stages of planetary evolution,” he said.

Both Keppler’s study and Muller’s study have been published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

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