Birth of planet emerging captured for first time

By Paul Harper

An artist's impression of the new planet. Image / ESO/L. Calcada
An artist's impression of the new planet. Image / ESO/L. Calcada

European scientists believe they have captured the birth of a Jupiter-sized planet emerging in a thick disc of gas and dust for the first time.

The European Space Agency's Very Large Telescope was used to study a disc of gas and dust that surrounds the young star HD 100546, located about 335 light-years from Earth.

The team of scientists, led by Sascha Quanz, found what appeared to be a planet in the process of being formed, still embedded in the disc of material around the young star.

If confirmed, the ESA said the discovery will greatly improve our understanding of how planets form and allow astronomers to test current theories against an observable target.

"So far, planet formation has mostly been a topic tackled by computer simulations," Quanz said. "If our discovery is indeed a forming planet, then for the first time scientists will be able to study the planet formation process and the interaction of a forming planet and its natal environment empirically at a very early stage."

The researchers' findings can be found here.

HD 100546 is thought to already host a giant planet, which orbits about six times further from the star than the Earth is from the Sun. The newly found planet candidate is located in the outer regions of the system, about ten times further out.

According to current theory, giant planets grow by capturing some of the gas and dust that remains after the formation of a star. The astronomers have spotted several features in the new image of the disc around HD100546 that support this protoplanet hypothesis.

Structures in the dusty circumstellar disc, which could be caused by interactions between the planet and the disc, were revealed close to the detected protoplanet. There are also indications the surroundings of the protoplanet are potentially heated up by the formation process.

"Exoplanet research is one of the most exciting new frontiers in astronomy, and direct imaging of planets is still a new field, greatly benefiting from recent improvements in instruments and data analysis methods," research team member Adam Amara said.

"In this research we used data analysis techniques developed for cosmological research, showing that cross-fertilisation of ideas between fields can lead to extraordinary progress."

Further research is required to confirm the existence of the new planet. It is possible the detected object may not be a protoplanet, but rather a fully formed planet which has been ejected from its original orbit closer to the star.

If it is confirmed to be a forming planet embedded in its parent disc of gas and dust, the ESA says it will become a "unique laboratory" in which to study the planetary formation process.


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