ESO’s Very Large Telescope Spots a Solar System in the Making
new planet

The aptly named telescope captured the first confirmed image of a planet coming together. A young dwarf star, named PDS 70, is home to at least one planet carving a path through a vast disc of gas and dust. You can’t miss it in the image below.

newly formed planet

You’re looking at a gas giant with a mass several times that of Jupiter sitting about three billion kilometers from its star (about the distance between Uranus and the Sun). Temperatures on the gas giant hover around a balmy 1000 degrees Celsius according to a group of astronomers at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany. Yep, that’s hot. Also not surprising given its environment.

To put those extreme temps into perspective, the hottest planet in our solar system is Venus at 464 degrees Celsius.

The astronomers were even able to tease details about the young planet’s atmosphere. A spectrum of the planet indicates the atmosphere is cloudy.

Take another look at the image. See that black circle? Astronomy fans will instantly recognize it. No, it’s not part of the PDS 70’s star system. It’s called a coronagraph. Astronomers attach it to telescopes to help block out the intense brightness of a star to see what’s going on around it. NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory uses a coronagraph to capture stunning images of solar flares like the one below.

coronograph sun

Miriam Keppler, team leader behind the discovery of the still-forming planet, explains why astronomers struggled to get this first confirmation. “The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc,” says Keppler.

Armed with the few details about the planet’s atmosphere and physical properties, astronomers can input the data and test models of planet formation.

The SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope proved vital in this discovery. Thomas Henning, director at the Max Planck Institute, summed up the time and effort put in to spot this new planet. “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 Henning.

PDS 70 is just one star of more than 600 SPHERE plans to observe in near-infrared as it hunts for new exoplanets and planetary systems. It’ll also take a look at young planetary systems we already know about and continue studying how planetary systems form and evolve.

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