Science News

Curated by RSF Research Staff

It’s a …. Planet!

Planets are hypothesized to have formed in a collapsing cloud of gas and dust in the thin surrounding discs of their proto ‘parent’ star. However, the exact details of the planetary formation process are yet to be fully understood and until now further exploration has proved difficult.

Our current understanding assumes planet formation to be simultaneous with the formation of its parent star. In this picture a huge cloud of gas is disturbed such that it gravitationally collapses and eventually increases in spin, forming a hot dense centre – the proto ‘parent’ star - and a thin cooler surrounding disc. As the disc gets thinner, particles begin to coalesce and eventually became planets and satellites. This understanding is based on fitting many small pieces of a puzzle together, and as we can typically only see the final fully formed planet it is difficult to get a complete picture of the formation process and test these theories.

That was until recently, when a team of research scientists were able to obtain the first ever image of an exoplanet in the process of forming. To achieve this the scientists utilized the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research (SPHERE) instrument, on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), which features a coronagraph to block out the stars light, creating an artificial eclipse, and revealing the faint corona and any orbiting planetary bodies. The observations revealed the presence of a new born gas giant orbiting its parent dwarf star PDS 70 which the scientists were able to photograph and determine its distance from the parent star to be 1.9 million miles. Further analysis showed that the temperature of this baby planet (~ 1200 Kelvin) is much hotter than fully formed planets which is what to be expected.

This research has huge implications, as now for the first time, scientists are able to observe and study the different stages of stellar formation. This will hopefully lead to new insights and a better understanding of the key processes involved in planetary and solar system formation.

Amira Val Baker




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