Astronomers snap amazing first image of a newborn planet

2 Jul 2018

This image highlights the majesty of the Milky Way as it snakes across the sky, accompanied by the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Image: P Horálek/ESO

Potentially having major implications on our understanding of planet formation, we have finally observed a newborn planet deep in the cosmos.

The European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) planet-hunting instrument, the Very Large Telescope (VLT), has spotted a true spectacle of the universe: the first confirmed image of a planet forming in the dusty disc surrounding a star.

The haunting image shows the fledgling planet carving a path through a primordial disc of gas and dust around the star dubbed PDS 70.

Located roughly 3bn km from its central star – equivalent to the distance between Uranus and the sun – the planet is a gas giant with a mass significantly larger than Jupiter and a scorching surface temperature of around 1,000 degrees Celsius.

The baby planet, named PDS 70b, was discovered by a team of astronomers led by a group from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany using the VLT’s SPHERE instrument, one of the most powerful planet detectors in existence. The instrument has also been credited with enabling researchers to measure the brightness of the planet at different wavelengths, allowing for its basic properties to be revealed.

In the photo released by ESO, the dark, central coronagraph helps astronomers mask out the blinding light of the central star, enabling us to see its much fainter disc and planetary companion.

Newborn star

The first clear image of a planet caught in the very act of formation around the dwarf star PDS 70. The planet stands clearly out, visible as a bright point to the right of the centre of the image, which is blacked out by the coronagraph mask used to block the blinding light of the central star. Image: ESO/A Müller et al

A much-needed discovery

“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,” said Miriam Keppler, who led the team.

“The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc.”

Since the initial discovery, most of the original team have spent the past few months following up on the observations to not only create the incredible image released to the public, but to also obtain a spectrum of the planet to confirm it has a cloudy atmosphere.

The appearance of a transition disc – a protoplanetary disc with a giant hole in its centre – around the planet was also important as it confirmed a decades-old theory that they were produced by disc-planet interaction.

André Müller, lead on the second research team, said: “Keppler’s results give us a new window on to 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.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic