Astronomers have snapped the first confirmed image of a planet still in the process of forming. The newborn, named PDS 70b, was spotted by the ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) as a bright splotch in the cloud of dust surrounding a young star.
PDS 70b orbits its star, PDS 70, at about the same distance that Uranus orbits the Sun. Spectral analysis of the planet tells researchers that it's a gas giant a few times more massive than Jupiter, with a cloudy atmosphere and a scalding surface temperature of about 1,000° C (1,832° F).
The observation was made thanks to the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument onboard the VLT, which was designed to detect and observe these young planets. To separate the dim light of a planet from the incredibly bright light of its parent star, SPHERE uses a coronagraph to block out the starlight before cranking up the contrast of the image. That brings the planet into focus quite clearly.
"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," says Miriam Keppler, lead researcher on the project. "The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc."
The host star is about 370 light-years from Earth and is also a relative spring chicken at about 10 million years old. The presence of planets orbiting it has long been suspected, thanks to the holes in the surrounding dusty disc as the object gathers up the material. These gaps are strikingly visible in the SPHERE image.
"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," says Thomas Henning, leader of the research team.
The observation was made as part of two survey programs, SHINE and DISK, both of which are using the SPHERE instrument to study young stars. SHINE is imaging 600 nearby young stars to identify new exoplanets, while DISK is studying known systems to learn more about the process of planetary formation.
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