Astronomers have captured first-ever snapshots of extrasolar planets ‘in formation’ in a what is being celebrated as a momentous discovery that could shed light on the early life of giant planets orbiting distant stars. Astronomers from the University of Arizona used state-of-the-art telescopes to glance at young planets orbiting a faraway star-system, hovering in the blackness of space approximately 450 light-years away from Earth. The star dubbed as LkCa 15, dwells in the heart of the northern hemisphere winter-sky constellation Taurus.
The distant star is very much akin to the sun, but almost half as old as our own star. Unlike the sun, LkCa 15 still remains shrouded in a thick blanket of gas and dust, the integral building blocks for planetary evolution. According to reports, the orbiting planets have been captured during the prime of their formation, caught in the act while consuming a ‘stream of hydrogen gas’ from the dust encircling the star, generating colossal energy and exhibiting piercing brightness. The discovery also demonstrates how new techniques to spot extra-solar planets springing into existence can be aided by observing a striking pattern of revelatory hydrogen gas emissions.
According to independent researcher Zhaohuan Zhu of Princeton University, the discovery adds a new dimension to scientific inquiry and challenges some of the erstwhile ideas and suppositions regarding planetary evolution.
“Such an understanding of the young planet population will shed light on the decades-old problem of planet formation, and reveal how young planetary systems can evolve into older ones such as our solar system, billions of years after they were born,”
The newborn worlds were spotted using impressively sophisticated technologies that enable telescopes to obtain an unprecedented snapshot of the night sky, bringing to light a magnificent origin of immensely distant star-systems as well as emerging planets circumnavigating a parent star.
Taurus is one of the largest constellations in the night sky visible in both the northern and southern hemispheres. While it can be spotted during autumn and winter months in the northern hemisphere, it glows in the southern hemisphere during late spring and all summer, albeit appearing upside down. In primordial times it was associated with the the figure of the bull. With its brightest star Aldebaran over 500 times as luminous as the sun and the 14th brightest star in the sky, this ancient constellation has been based on 3,000 year old Babylonian observations of the heavens.
According to common knowledge, stars and their planets emerge out of a collapsing cloud of dust and gas within a larger parent cloud referred to as a nebula. The central core of the cloud gets more and more compressed and heats up as a result of gravity, forming a dense core, culminating in the origin of stars. This immense cloud compression gives way to consistent rotation and eventually flattens into a spinning disk. This ‘protoplanetary’ rotating ‘circumstellar’ disk according to astronomers is the very birthplace of planets.
According to Stephanie Sallum, a Ph.D. student in astronomy at the University of Arizona, such protoplanetary disks form around young stars using the debris left over from the star’s original formation.
“We are just now being able to image objects that are close to and much fainter than a nearby star. That’s because of astronomers at the University of Arizona (UA) who have developed the instruments and techniques that make that difficult observation possible.This is the first time that we’ve imaged a planet that we can say is still forming. “
According to estimates, each of the protoplanets observed during formation is less than 10 times the mass of Jupiter.
[Image via NASA]