It is a moment of birth that has previously proved elusive, but astronomers say they now have the first confirmed image of the formation of a planet.
The startling snapshot shows a bright blob – the nascent planet – travelling through the dust and gas surrounding a young star, known as PDS70, thought to be about 370 light years from Earth.
The black circle in the centre of the image is a filter to block the light from the star, enabling other features of the system to be seen. The new planet is the bright point to the right of the centre of the image.
Spotted by the Sphere instrument of the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, the planet – a gas giant with a mass greater than Jupiter – is about as far from its star as Uranus is from our sun, with further analyses revealing that it appears to have a cloudy atmosphere and a surface temperature of 1000C.
“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 one of the teams of astronomers involved in the research published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.
“The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc.”
“We needed to observe a planet in a young star’s disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation,” said André Müller, one of the authors of a second study looking at the planet.
“Keppler’s results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly-understood early stages of planetary evolution.”