A Swiss-led team of astronomers has reported what may be the first-ever observed formation of a new planet, 335 light-years away. There, a cloud of gas and dust is believed to be developing into a gas giant planet, similar to Jupiter.
The astronomers, led by Zurich Federal Institute of Technology researcher Sascha Quanz, noted that their observation strongly supports the theory that planets form by picking up the leftover gas and dust after a star is born.
According to Quanz, the issue of planet formation has mostly been explored through computer simulations so far. But, in recent years, technology has evolved to allow scientists to observe the relatively faint signals of developing planets next to the extremely bright signals of nearby stars.
“In this case it was the combination of finding the right instrument, data and techniques, and of course you have to be lucky,” Quanz told swissinfo.ch. “There are so many stars in the sky, and we looked at this one because we had the idea that there might be something.”
The team of six scientists conducted its observations using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile’s Atacama desert. The VLT is the world’s most advanced visible-light telescope.
The star whose birth is believed to have prompted the new planet’s formation has been named HD 100546 and has been studied extensively by astronomers. The protoplanet believed to be forming in HD 100546’s wake was observed using a coronograph – a telescope attachment designed to block out a star’s direct light in order to observe nearby objects.
The newly forming planet is believed to be about 70 times further from its star than Earth is from the sun. Another large planet is also believed to be orbiting HD 100546.
Below, a video fly-through from the European Southern Observatory shows the dusty environment around the star HD 100546.
Further observation planned
More observation needs to be conducted to confirm that a new planet is indeed forming alongside HD 100546. For example, it’s possible the newly detected object may be a fully formed planet whose orbit was disrupted by the star’s formation, say scientists.
Or, Quanz tells swissinfo.ch, it’s possible but “very, very unlikely” that another source from far in the background, such as a distant star or galaxy, could have been perfectly aligned with the disc of gas believed to contain the forming planet. In this case, the light signal coming from the distant object could have looked like a planet from afar. However, Quanz says that possibility will be ruled out if, in the coming months, the distant light source remains fixed but the emerging planet changes alignment.
If astronomers are able to confirm their finding, they say the emerging planet will become a unique laboratory in which to observe planetary formation. They will continue their observations in April using various filters and wavelengths to determine more information about the object’s temperature and brightness.