Is this the first photo of a planet being born?

Near-infrared image from the Very Large Telescope showing the still-forming protoplanet, the bright blob, near its star (which has been blocked out by the telescope to reduce the star's bright light). Credit: ESO
Near-infrared image from the Very Large Telescope showing the still-forming protoplanet, the bright blob, near its star (which has been blocked out by the telescope to reduce the star’s bright light). Credit: ESO

Astronomers have taken the first photo of what is thought to be a giant planet still in the process of forming near its star.

The star, HD 100546, is about 335 light-years from Earth and is very young, still surrounded by the circumstellar disk of gas and dust that it was born in. Now it seems that at least one planet is still forming here as well. Other exoplanets have been directly imaged before, but this would be the first photograph of just such a protoplanet being born.

The discovery was made by the Very Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory (ESO). The near-infrared image was taken using a special coronagraph on the telescope, which also blocked out the intense light from the star itself.

“So far, planet formation has mostly been a topic tackled by computer simulations,” says team leader Sascha Quanz. He continues, “If our discovery is indeed a forming planet, then for the first time scientists will be able to study the planet formation process and the interaction of a forming planet and its natal environment empirically at a very early stage.”

The protoplanet orbits about 70 times farther out from its star about than Earth does from the sun and is the size of a gas giant planet like Jupiter or Saturn.

It is possible that the protoplanet may actually be a more distant object in the background or a fully-formed planet orbiting closer to the star, but those explanations are considered unlikely by the astronomers involved. Additional observations will be required to absolutely confirm the findings, but if, or when, that happens, it will be a unique opportunity to study the process of planetary formation as it is actually occurring.

The published paper is available here.

This article was first published on Examiner.com.

Paul Scott Anderson is a freelance space writer with a life-long passion for space exploration and astronomy. He started his blog The Meridiani Journal in 2005, which is a chronicle of planetary exploration. He also publishes The Exoplanet Report e-paper. In 2011, he started writing about space on a freelance basis, and now also currently write for AmericaSpace and Examiner.com. He has also written for Universe Today and SpaceFlight Insider, has been published in The Mars Quarterly and has done supplementary writing for the well-known iOS app Exoplanet for iPhone and iPad.

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