Scientists have taken the first ever image of a planet in the process of being born, in the dusty disc surrounding a young star.
The fledgling planet is a gas giant, several times the size of Jupiter, in the Centaurus constellation.
Astronomers led by a group at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy took the image through the European Southern Observatory’s aptly-named Very Large Telescope (VLT), announcing their find on Monday.
“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 lead the team behind the discovery of PDS 70’s still-forming planet.
“The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc,” said Keppler in a statement.
Using a special imaging equipment, the scientists were able to capture an image of a young dwarf star, PDS 70, using special filters to pick out the surrounding disc of dust.
The image shows a disc with a black center, to the right of which is a bright orange spot—the newly-minted planet.
The center of the image should be a bright star but has been blackened out by a coronagraph to allow astronomers to examine the surrounding disk.
The planet, PDS 70b, lies roughly three billion kilometers (1.8 billion miles) from the central star; about the distance between Uranus and the Sun.
“The analysis shows that PDS 70b is a giant gas planet with a mass a few times that of Jupiter,” said a statement from the ESO.
“The planet’s surface has a temperature of around 1000°C, making it much hotter than any planet in our own Solar System.”
By determining the planet’s atmospheric and physical properties, the astronomers are able to test theoretical models of planet formation.
The image was formed through the ESO’s SPHERE instrument, which uses a technique known as high-contrast imaging, using data processing techniques to filter out the faint signals of the faint planetary companions around bright young stars.
After the initial discovery astronomers spent several months investigating the fledgling planet in more detail, and were able to use spectrum analysis to determine that the planet has a cloudy atmosphere.
“After more than a decade of enormous efforts to build this high-tech machine, now SPHERE enables us to reap the harvest with the discovery of baby planets!” said Thomas Henning, director at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.