Astronomers have found what could be the first-ever sighting of a planet forming while still in the midst of a dust cloud surrounding a star.
The object, which orbits the star HD 100546, is only 335 light-years from Earth and appears to be a gas giant. If the findings, published this week in Astrophysical Journal Letters, are confirmed, they could provide evidence for hypotheses about how planets form.
“So far, planet formation has mostly been a topic tackled by computer simulations,” says Sascha Quanz, lead researcher on the project and a scientist at ETH Zurich. “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.”
For now, the planet has only been detected by the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope as a blob orbiting within the star’s accretion disc. The research team also detected “structures” in the dust cloud near the object as well as an increased temperature that could be caused by planet formation. Current planet-formation hypotheses hold that planets form from the gas and dust that are left over after a star forms.
“Exoplanet research is one of the most exciting new frontiers in astronomy, and direct imaging of planets is still a new field, greatly benefiting from recent improvements in instruments and data analysis methods,” said Adam Amare, a member of the research team. “In this research we used data analysis techniques developed for cosmological research, showing that cross-fertilisation of ideas between fields can lead to extraordinary progress.”
(Image courtesy ESA)