Astronomers believe they may have found the first direct evidence of a new planet being born. A dense disc of dust and gas has been spotted surrounding a young star called AB Aurigae, about 520 light years away from Earth.
Using the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT), located in Chile, the researchers observed a spiral structure with a “twist” near the center, which suggests a new world may be in the process of forming. The swirling disc was one of the telltale signs of the star system being born in the constellation of Auriga, the scientists said.
Anthony Boccaletti, who led the study from the Observatoire de Paris at the PSL University, in France, said: “Thousands of exoplanets have been identified so far, but little is known about how they form.”
Boccaletti and his team of astronomers used VLT’s SPHERE instrument — short for Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research — to take photos of AB Aurigae, which show “a stunning spiral of dust” caused by the baby planet trying to “kick” the gas. The same instrument was used in 2018 to take photos of another infant planet, thought to be just 5.4 million years old.
According to Emmanuel Di Folco, of the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux in France, and one of the study’s authors, this so-called kicking phenomenon causes “disturbances in the disc in the form of a wave, somewhat like the wake of a boat on a lake.”
As the new planet rotates around AB Aurigae, it causes the surrounding gas and dust to be shaped into a spiral arm. The very bright yellow region near the center of the spiral is the twist, which lies at about the same distance from the star as Neptune from the sun.
The Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics of Academia Sinica (ASIAA) in Taiwan on Wednesday revealed further detail behind the sequence of events that led to this milestone in astronomy. Back in 2017, researchers led by ASIAA Assistant Research Fellow Tang Ya-wen first spotted prominent spiral structures in a dense disk of dust and gas around the young star. They suggested that the site might be the location of a forming planet. In 2019 and early 2020, Boccaletti led a multi-national research team, in which Tang also participated, to conduct the most thorough and comprehensive observation of AB Aurigae to date, using the SPHERE instrument on the ESO’s VLT.
The observation confirmed the presence of the spiral arms, first detected by Tang in 2017, and spotted a very bright yellow “twist” region close to the center of the disk, which suggested that the light came from the accretion of dust and gas at a lower temperature, which conforms with theoretical models of planetary formation. Astronomers believe that planets are born from this kind of accretion of dust and gas surrounding a young star — AB Aurigae in this case — and that this discovery serves as the first direct evidence of baby planets coming into to existence.
“We need to observe very young ‘star-planet’ systems to really capture the moment when planets form. But until now astronomers had rarely been able to take sharp enough images of these young disks to directly discern regions of planetary formation,” Tang says. The observations are reported in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.
(Guardian, with additional reporting by staff writer)
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