In a historic first, scientists have managed to catch an extremely young exoplanet in the process of formation.
There are a number of theories about how planets form, but the truth is that right now we don’t really know how planetary systems are born. Seeing a planet being spun out of the galactic gas and dust of the Universe is a large part of the puzzle and this is the first time that astronomers have managed it.
The team, led by a group from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, decided to focus their investigation on the young dwarf star PDS 70, which was already suspected of having a young exoplanet in orbit around it.
“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,” explained Miriam Keppler, doctoral student at the MPIA and first author of the publication that highlights the discovery, in a statement. “The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc.”
Using SPHERE, a planet-hunting instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, the researchers focused in on this primordial disc of gas and dust and found a young planet carving a path through it.
As soon as they spotted the baby planet, the team launched follow-up investigations and were able to get a spectrum analysis of the planet, which shows that the tiny world has a cloudy atmosphere.
They were also able to see that discs with giant “holes” in the centre where the dust and gas are missing are indeed caused by planet formation, a theory long suspected by scientists.