Astronomers spot first potential evidence of new planet being born

Image of the disc around AB Aurigae coloured orange red and yellow

But the VLT view, which was obtained using an instrument called SPHERE (short for "Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research"), adds something different and more detailed: a twist in those spiral arms.

When new planets form, these clumps of material create wave-like perturbations in the gas- and dust-filled disk around a star, "somewhat like the wake of a boat on a lake", Di Folco said. The one on the right shows the inner region of the disc, including the bright yellow twist, circled in white.

This putative protoplanet appears to be forming roughly equivalent to Neptune's distance from the Sun at a distance from her star.

In an examination distributed in Astronomy and Astrophysics today, a group of space experts clarify how they caught pictures of a youthful star, AB Aurigae, 520 light-years from Earth.

"We need to observe very young systems to really capture the moment when planets form", says Boccaletti.

The very bright yellow region near the centre of the spiral is the twist, which lies at about the same distance from the star as Neptune from the Sun.

This helical structure with a twisted shape in the center showed astronomers that a new planet may be in the process of formation.

Wide-field view of the region of the sky where AB Aurigae is located
Wide-field view of the region of the sky where AB Aurigae is located. Image ESO Digitised Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement Davide De Martin

Peering into young star systems surrounded by gas and dust is hard, as is capturing sharp and detailed images of them. In December 2019 and January 2020, an worldwide team of scientists used the Very Large Telescope in Chile to take some high-contrast images of AB Aurigae in near-infrared light, resulting in highly detailed pictures of the protoplanetary cloud. Gas and dust first form the star and what remains forms the planets.

An worldwide team of astronomers led by Anthony Boccaletti of the Observatoire de Paris has found what may be the first images of a planet being born. In a massive disc of swirling gas and dust around the star, they detected a distinct twist, which could indicate where a new planet is forming and validate a major theory about planetary formation.

"The twist is expected from some theoretical models of planet formation", study co-author Anne Dutrey, of the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux in France, said in a statement.

As the planet rotates around the central star, this wave gets shaped into a spiral arm. "It corresponds to the connection of two spirals - one winding inwards of the planet's orbit, the other expanding outwards - which join at the planet location".

The ESO is now constructing the 39-metre Extremely Large Telescope, to study extrasolar worlds.

These could confirm that what we are looking at is indeed a giant planet in the formation process, and more precisely, calculate its mass.

It has been involved in spotting the first image of an extrasolar planet as well as tracking individual stars moving around the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.

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