Astronomers capture birth of a planet on camera in scientific first

19 Nov 2015

An artist's illustration of a protoplanetary disk. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech

With the almost incomprehensible amount of time required in the grander scale of the universe, we very rarely get to see the birth of major celestial bodies, until now.

While we are never likely to even see the planet forming due to the millions of years it will take to form, astronomers from the University of Arizona (UA) have at least been able to snap an image of the birth of a planet.

In this case, the astronomers turned their telescopes to a young star 450 light years away from Earth designated LkCa15, which features a transitional disk commonly associated with the formation of planets.

And now, by taking an image with their powerful telescopes, the astronomers have managed to achieve something that has never been done before as, until now, only 10 exoplanets have ever been photographed of the 10,000 known to exist and this was the first one captured during formation.

It’s like a big doughnut

Publishing their findings in Nature, students Stephanie Sallum and Kate Follette revealed they had both originally been working independently on analysis of the star, but teamed up to study the planet-forming disk that surrounds the star, known as a protoplanetary disk.

Astronomers believe that planets then form inside this disk where it sweeps up dust and debris as the material falls onto the planets instead of staying in the disk or falling onto the star. A gap is then cleared in which planets can reside.

“The reason we selected this system is because it’s built around a very young star that has material left over from the star-formation process,” Follette said of their decision to analyse the star. “It’s like a big doughnut. This system is special because it’s one of a handful of disks that has a solar-system size gap in it. And one of the ways to create that gap is to have planets forming in there.”

And, thankfully, for our viewing pleasure, UA has put together a video collage of the photographs with some relaxing sci-fi-esque music.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic