Tech & Science

This Is the First Ever Picture of a Newborn Planet

Astronomers have captured the first ever direct image of a newborn planet, PDS 70b, as it bursts into life in the dusty disk surrounding a bright host star.

The image confirms newborn planets slice through these disks leaving holes and rings in their wake, researchers have said.

European Southern Observatory teams used a powerful planet-hunting instrument called SPHERE on the Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert, Chile, to produce the image. Scientists described their research in two papers published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Planets emerge in the swirling disks of dust and gas that race around stars for the first 10 million years of their lives. “It is thought that planet formation starts when material in the disk starts to stick together, forming small clumps which [finally grow] to larger bodies—so-called planetesimals,” Miriam Keppler, an author on both studies, told Newsweek. “If those attain a certain size, these objects can gather more material from the disk such as ice and gas, evolving into giants with a gaseous or icy envelope.”

Scientists have observed hints of newborn planets before, but this is the first time they’ve snapped one up close, confirming it’s not just a quirky feature of the star’s disk.

7_2_Newborn Planet A still-forming planet captured by the European Southern Observatory's SPHERE instrument. The planet can be seen as a bright point to the right of the center of the image. The black spot in the middle is a coronagraph blocking out some of the central star's light. A Müller et al/ESO

Astronomers observing circumstellar disks shredded with gaps, rings and spirals have long thought planet formation could be behind these structures. “PDS 70b, which is found in the large gap of its parental disk, now finally confirms that planets do play an important role in the formation of these gaps,” said Keppler, who works at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.

Picking out the faint planet from the brilliant light of its host star was a challenge for the team. Researchers used methods including a black spot called a coronagraph—which you can see in the image above—to obscure some of the light.

“Using a technique called angular differential imaging, which takes advantage of the Earth’s rotation around its own axis during the time of observation, we were able to subtract the bright light from the star to make the comparably faint planet visible,” Keppler explained.

Once they’d sifted out the starlight, scientists probed the mysterious baby planet. Unfortunately for any budding interstellar travelers, they think it’s probably cloudy.

The research helped scientists home in on the time it takes to bulk out a planet. “This detection...tells us that in a time of only few million years (the star’s age is five to six million years), planets can grow to a mass of several Jupiter masses,” Keppler said.

In the future, she added, astronomers will use PDS 70b to learn more about the material floating around the planet and its accretion of gas.

“After this exciting discovery, I hope many more detections of [this] kind of planets will come in the future, enabling us to get a statistical view on the properties of young, forming planets,” Keppler added.

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