Astronomers observe baby planet being born for first time ever

Eloise Marshall
May 22, 2020

It's surrounded by a thick disk made of cold gas and dust.

An image of a mesmerizing cosmic spiral, twisting and swirling around a galactic maw, may be the first direct evidence of the birth of a planet ever captured by humanity.

The parent star of the developing planet is AB Aurigae, found in the constellation Auriga, a familiar constellation in the Northern Hemisphere.

The same instrument was used in 2018 to take photos of another infant planet, thought to be just 5.4 million years old.

Using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT), located in Chile, the researchers observed a spiral structure with a "twist" near the centre, which suggests a new world may be in the process of forming.

The research has been published in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

AB Aurigae system showing the disc around it. "They allow gas and dust from the [disk] to accrete onto the forming planet and make it grow".

Planets' origin stories apparently come with a twist.

The S-shaped "twist" seen in the very center of the system is likely caused by a process called "Lindblad resonance".

"The twist is expected from some theoretical models of planet formation", said co-author Dr. Anne Dutrey, also from the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux.

Researchers accept they have watched a planet being formed for the first time.

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While more than 4,000 exoplanets - planets orbiting a distant star - have been discovered, it's rare to see one so early on in its formation.

This chart shows the location of the AB Aurigae system. The image on the right is a zoomed-in version of the area indicated by a red square on the image on the left.

The region is just one of the disturbance sites where the astronomers believe a planet is being made.

The cavity is a region where there is much less gas and dust, potentially created by another planet. In the rings of Saturn, the astronomers have seen the same physics at play.

"There may be other planets somewhere hidden behind the structure that we see here that we will detect later on, but we can not yet interpret all the structure of that we see".

According to Dr Boccaletti, the baby planet is located about 30 times further from AB Aurigae than Earth's distance from our sun, which is around the same placement as the planet Neptune. It's a new puzzle piece about how planets evolve from tiny grains to giant globes.

"This is part of our origin", said Di Folco.

It appears to be a large gas planet, not a rocky planet like Earth or Mars, and may be more massive than our solar system's largest planet Jupiter, Boccaletti added.

Peering into young star systems surrounded by gas and dust is hard, as is capturing sharp and detailed images of them.

Until now, astronomers had been unable to take sufficiently sharp and deep images of these young discs to find the "twist" that marks the spot where a baby planet may be coming to existence.

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