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Thursday 17 January 2019

Planet seen swirling into life for the first time

The gas giant is bigger than Jupiter
The gas giant is bigger than Jupiter

Sarah Knapton

Even by astronomical standards it is a discovery that is out of this world.

Scientists have for the first time witnessed the birth of a planet, a huge gas giant many times the size of Jupiter, swirling into existence 370 light years from Earth.

The theory of how gas planets form from a vortex of hydrogen and helium molecules, captivated by their own gravity, is now widely accepted by scientists. But it has never been seen before - until now.

Yesterday, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Heidelberg and the SPHERE instrument consortium at the Very Large Telescope of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile released a spectacular image of the birth.

The planet, currently known as PDS 70b, is shown orbiting within a huge spinning 'protoplanetary disc' of gas and dust, which proves it is continuing to accumulate matter, and so is not yet fully formed.

The newborn sits within a 5.4m-year-old solar system, orbiting a star called PDS 70 at a distance of 3 billion kilometres.

The planet stands out clearly in the image, visible as a bright point to the right of the blackened centre.

The dark region at the centre of the image is due to a coronagraph, a mask which blocks the blinding light of the central star and allows astronomers to detect the faint light from the planet.

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.

Irish Independent

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