Scientists have spotted an impressive variety of planets and bodies in a seemingly never ending galaxy over the years. But now, astronomers have caught sight of a “baby” planet in the act of formation.
This is the first time that researchers have definitively identified a juvenile planet, USA Today reports. The planet, called LkCa 15 b, was caught “eating” super-heated gas and dust that will help it during its formation process. Photos of the new planet show it existing in a red color.
“The ultimate question we all want to answer is, how common are Earth-like planets and how are they formed?” Stanford University astronomer and author of the study describing the planet (published in Nature) Kate Follette said. “This is a step along the way.”
The baby planet and its star are located in the constellation Taurus, which is roughly 470 light-years from Earth’s solar system.
Past research indicated that their could be a world of juvenile planets forming in this particular spot in the galaxy, so University of Arizona astronomer Stephanie Sallum, Follette and their colleagues prepared. They tasked some of the most sophisticated telescopes with keeping an eye on the area.
“The reason we selected this system is because it’s built around a very young star that has material left over from the star-formation process,” Follette explained in a statement, The Washington Post reports. “It’s like a big doughnut. This system is special because it’s one of a handful of disks that has a solar-system size gap in it. And one of the ways to create that gap is to have planets forming in there.”
So the women and their colleagues set up the high-powered telescopes and used a new technique to scout out protoplanets. They looked for light emitted by hydrogen as the gas falls toward the baby planet. Since the process is so hot, it produces a signature red, glowing color.
“The difference in brightness between a star and a young exoplanet is usually comparable to the difference between a firefly and a lighthouse,” Follette said. “It’s very hard to isolate the light from the planet when it is so faint and so close to the star from our point of view. But, because we could focus on a special color of light where the planet is growing very brightly, the signal was significantly stronger than what we normally look for.”
The astronomers were able to figure out orbits of two young planets and suspect there is a third, The Post reports. They are likely to become gas giants.