Scientists have been able to witness and capture images of the birth of a brand-new planet, thanks to the European Southern Observatory or ESO’s VLT (Very Large Telescope), located on Mount Paranal in Chile.
The VLT is the most powerful telescope ever built, consisting of four main telescopes, each equipped with mirrors that are 8.2 meters (27 feet) in diameter, plus four auxiliary telescopes with 1.8-meter-diameter mirrors.
It helped scientists probe deep into the universe to witness a never-seen-before space event – the birth of a gigantic new planet named PDS70b, which happens to be several times heavier than Jupiter, with a diameter that measures 11.2 times more than that of Earth.
The scientists have determined that this gas planet of epic proportions has an unimaginably hot surface temperature of 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000° Celsius) – way hotter than the highest temperature recorded on any planet in our solar system.
The PDS70b is a whopping 1,864,113,576 miles away from its star, about the same distance as between Uranus and the sun, and takes 120 earth years to complete one revolution around its parent star.
SPHERE, the VLT’s planet-hunting instrument, was able to capture incredibly clear images of the birth of this over-sized baby planet in the PDS70 star system, orbiting a dwarf star of the same name; which is why the planet has been christened PDS70b.
As part of an ESO project, a team of some 120 scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA), in Heidelberg, Germany, were involved in this space research of immense scientific significance.
The discovery and follow-up study have been chronicled in two papers published in the “Astronomy and Astrophysics” journal under the heading “Discovery of a planetary-mass companion within the gap of the transition disk around PDS 70” and “Orbital and atmospheric characterization of the planet within the gap of the PDS 70 transition disk.”
Here are the MPIA links to the two research papers
The young planet is located within a colossal gas and dust disk called the circumstellar disk that surrounds the dwarf star it orbits.
The creation of planets like the PD70b is triggered when dense regions of the gases bind together more tightly because of the gravitational forces acting on the gas particles.
This giant eddy of swirling gasses eventually manages to suck in enough material, fusing the drawn matter together to form a gas planet, which the PD70b is a fine example of.
A spectrum analysis following the spotting of PD70b revealed that the planet has a cloudy atmosphere.
The MPIA team were also able to determine that the massive “holes” observed in the disk were actually the result of missing gas and dust that went into forming the new planet – a theory that scientists have long believed to be the true explanation for these so-called “holes.”
“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 in a statement. She is an MPIA doctoral student and the first author of the research publication
“The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc,” she said.
Image of PDS 70b, discovered by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile using its planet-finding instrument, SPHERE
MPIA director and senior author of the study Professor Thomas Henning said in a statement that the discovery is the culmination of a “long-cherished dream” of being able to identify and research planets at the time of their creation.
“After ten years of developing new powerful astronomical instruments such as SPHERE, this discovery shows us that we are finally able to find and study planets at the time of their formation. That is the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream,” Professor Henning said.
There is, however, another theory on what the researchers are calling the birth of a new planet – that it could well be an older planet of gas and dust, formed nearer to the center of the circumstellar disk and flung outwards to where the scientists are seeing it now.
“It’s a scenario we still can’t rule out completely,” said first author Dr. Sascha Quanz of ETH Zurich – Institute for Particle Physics and Astrophysics.
”But it’s much less likely than our explanation, which suggests that what we’re seeing is the birth of a planet,” added Quanz.
This alternative theory – however much remote its possibility of being the correct explanation – is what makes the data compiled by VLT and SPHERE much more significant.
It means that scientists can now work on finding a way to track the planet’s precise trajectory from its origin near the circumstellar core to where it is now – if that’s what actually happened.
However, if a link between the two points cannot be determined, the new planet theory could well prove to be the correct one, which, in any case, the scientists are considering as the more likely explanation of the two.
Characterizing a young planet is a “long-lasting and careful process,” said André Muller – one of the authors of the study. “We worked for at least a year on it on a daily basis.”
The new study has also put paid to the theory that the signal could have been coming from a background source and not from just outside the perimeter of the circumstellar disk.
Based on the invaluable data collected, scientists are now almost convinced that the origin of the signal is indeed the disk.
“The best explanation for the observed phenomena is that a new planet is actually in the process of formation, embedded in the disk surrounding its parent star,” concludes the study.