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This Is What The Birth Of A New Planet Looks Like

Jul 04, 2018 10:26 AM EDT
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Humanity has already witnessed and achieved a myriad of amazing things in space, but this one is a first: a photo of a planet forming.

In a monumental event, astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany have snapped an image of a baby planet still in the process of formation.

The discovery, detailed in a paper in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, could yield a ton of new knowledge for scientists.

PDS 70's Baby Planet

The planet was caught by SPHERE, the planet-hunting instrument on the ESO's Very Large Telescope, according to ESO. The baby planet is forming in what's called the protoplanetary disc around the young star PDS 70. Named after its star, the planet is dubbed PDS 70b.

Planets have a different scale when it comes to time. While the discovery is called a baby planet, in this case, it means PDS 70b is roughly 5 or 6 million years old, NPR reported. In comparison to 4.5-billion-year-old Earth, it's definitely a young one.

Despite its early age, PDS 70 b is shaping up to be massive. At this point, it's already 1,300 times larger than Earth. Its orbit around its star takes 120 Earth years.

The distance between the planet and star is about 3 billion kilometers or 1.9 billion miles, roughly equal to the gap separating Uranus and the sun.

A Rare Cosmic Event

In the featured photo, the dark region is actually the effect of a coronagraph, which masks the extremely bright light emanating from the star. This allows scientists to spot other surrounding objects like the planet.

For a long time, protoplanetary discs made up of gas and dust have been theorized to be the site of planetary births. However, it's never been proven.

"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 discovery of the planet-in-making.

According to Keppler, other planet candidates are potentially just various features on a disc. PDS 70's baby planet is the first one that scientists are actually certain of and it proves that planet formations carve out a gap in the protoplanetary disc.

The Significance Of The Discovery

Finally, seeing a planet as it is forming is important in understanding the entirety of a planet's life.

"Keppler's results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly-understood early stages of planetary evolution," explains André Müller, who led the second team in studying the young planet. "We needed to observe a planet in a young star's disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation."

After all, these details from the distant cosmos inform the creation of the solar system as well.

"It's a step forward to understand where we come from," Müller concludes.

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