Astronomers Amazed As a Planet Forms Around a Dwarf Star Before Their Eyes For The First Time

Monday, 02 July 2018 - 11:20AM
Astronomy
Space
Monday, 02 July 2018 - 11:20AM
Astronomers Amazed As a Planet Forms Around a Dwarf Star Before Their Eyes For The First Time
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Image Credit: ESO/A. Müller et al.

Using the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT), a group of astronomers led by a team at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany (MPIA) captured the first-ever image of a planet forming around PDS 70, a young orange dwarf star 370 lightyears away from Earth. 

Named PDS 70b, the planet is located just to the right of the black dot in the center of the image. It is not the first protoplanetary disc to be detected, but getting an image of one is not as simple as pointing a telescope at the sky and pressing a shutter button. According to Science Alert, when astronomers discovered that there was a gap in PDS 70's disc back in 2012, they suspected that a forming planet was the cause and decided to focus their efforts to find it. The astronomers used the powerful VLT and something called a coronagraph, which masked the very bright light of the dwarf star so that the planet could be visible. 



"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 MPIA astronomer Miriam Keppler, who lead the team responsible for the discovery. "The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc."

Keppler's team was also able to measure the brightness of the young planet and to estimate more about its physical characteristics. The gas giant is around 3 billion kilometers from PDS 70 and is believed to be around 3 times the mass of Jupiter. The analysis and rare image of PDS 70b forming is major for those who study planetary science, and may help us all understand more about our own planet and solar system. "Keppler's results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly-understood early stages of planetary evolution," said astronomer André Müller of the MPIA. "We needed to observe a planet in a young star's disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation."

Max Planck Institute director and team leader Thomas Hedding summarized the importance of the findings. 

Opening quote
"After more than a decade of enormous efforts to build this high-tech machine, now SPHERE enables us to reap the harvest with the discovery of baby planets!"
Closing quote


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