An alien world that’s just beginning to form was spotted by one of the most powerful planet-hunting telescopes in the world inside the protoplanetary disk of a young star.
This is the absolute first time ever that astronomers managed to capture a snapshot of a baby planet being born — a spectacular achievement made possible with the help of the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.
The newly-released photo, taken by the VLT’s SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research) instrument, reveals the baby exoplanet “carving a path through the primordial disk of gas and dust around the very young star PDS 70,” ESO announced today.
This faint orange dwarf star is located some 370 light-years from our planet and is only about 5.4-million-years-old, reports Space.com. This means that the newfound planet orbiting it could be even younger, Miriam Keppler of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, told The Guardian.
Keppler led the discovery of the baby exoplanet, dubbed PDS 70b, which has been described in a paper published today in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.
First Confirmed Photo Of A Newborn Planet
While ESO has spotted baby planets in the past — for instance, the Inquisitr recently reported on the finding of three infant exoplanets in a young planet system 330 light-years from Earth — this is “the first confirmed image of a planet caught in the act of forming” inside the vast disk of dust and cloud shrouding a young star, state officials from the observatory.
“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 Keppler.
As she points out, the special thing about PDS 70b “is that we can directly image it” as it’s literally being born.
Commenting on the release of this one-of-a-kind SPHERE photo, Keppler explained the importance of the groundbreaking snapshot — described as “historic” by Space.com.
“In this case we now have a direct image [of the planet] in its ‘birthplace’, which is the circumstellar disk. This is especially important because people have been wondering [for a long time], how these planets actually form and how the dust and the material in this disk forms [into] a planet, and now we can directly observe this.”
A Scorching Super-Jupiter With Cloudy Atmosphere
The newly discovered exoplanet has been observed with two instruments on the VLT, SPHERE included, as well as another instrument at the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii.
Subsequent investigations revealed that PDS 70b is a super-Jupiter two to three times bigger than our gas giant and that it orbits its parent star from very far away.
This baby exoplanet lies 1.9 billion miles (three billion kilometers) from PDS 70, or about the same distance as between Uranus and the sun. According to The Guardian, this vast distance means that the planet needs around 120 years to complete a full orbit.
But although it’s so far away from the orange dwarf star, PDS 70b is much hotter than any of the planets in our solar system. This is because newborn planets usually retain much of the heat from when they first sparked into existence, explains Space.com.
ESO revealed that PDS 70b has scorching temperatures of 1,000 degrees Celsius (or more than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit). By comparison, the hottest planet in our solar system, Venus, has a boiling surface temperature of 462 degrees Celsius (863 degrees Fahrenheit).
By measuring the planet’s brightness at different wavelengths, SPHERE enabled researchers to glean some of PDS 70b’s atmospheric properties as well. A second study published today in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics shows the aforementioned traits of this baby exoplanet, including that it most likely has a cloudy atmosphere.
Study lead author André Müller, also from the Max Planck Institute, chimed in on the significance of Keppler’s discovery, who was involved in the second study as well.
“Keppler’s results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly-understood early stages of planetary evolution. We needed to observe a planet in a young star’s disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation.”