Astronomers are Watching a gas Giant Grow, Right in Front of Their Eyes

In the vastness of space, astronomers are likely to find instances of almost every astronomical phenomena if they look hard enough.  Many planetary phenomena are starting to come into sharper focus as the astronomy community continues to focus on finding exoplanets.  Now a team led by Yifan Zhou at UT Austin has directly imaged a gas giant still in formation.

To do this, the team used that workhorse of astronomers for the last 30 years – Hubble.  They pointed it at the orange dwarf system PDS 70, which is known thought to have two planets in the formation stage.  The system is located in the constellation Centaurus, about 370 light years away from our solar system.  One of its planets, PDS 70b, is a gas giant that circles its star at about the same distance as Uranus from our Sun.

Image of the protoplanetary surrounding PDS 70.
Credit: ESO, VLT, André B. Müller (ESO)

PDS 70b is still relatively young, at about 5 million years old, but it has already grown to the size of approximately 5 Jupiters.  It also appears to be at the tail end of its growth phase, collecting only about 1/100 of a mass of Jupiter over the next million years if it maintains its current rate of growth.

That growth is fueled by a circumplanetary disk that collects material from a larger circumstellar disk and funnels it onto the planet.  Those funnels follow magnetic field lines into the planet’s atmosphere, and can be viewed at extra hot specks in ultraviolet wavelengths.

Astronomy Cast Episode discussing the direct imaging method of exoplanets

Dr. Zhou and his team managed to directly image the planet, making it one of only about 15 that have been directly imaged so far, and the youngest of those imaged by Hubble.  They used the space telescope’s ultraviolet sensors to capture an image of both the PDS 70 star and it’s growing gas giant.  The problem was filtering out the star’s light, which was 3000 times brighter than the ultraviolet light from the planet.

Using a novel post processing technique, Dr. Zhou was able to block out the light from the star and leave only the light emitted from the planet to be analyzed.  In doing so, he also decreased the maximum exoplanet’s maximum orbit around a star that can be viewed by Hubble by a factor of five.

Processed image of the PDS 70b gas giant with blocked starlight.
Credit: NASA, ESA, McDonald Observatory – University of Texas, Yifan Zhou (UT), Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

The team points out that this observation is only a snapshot in time, so there is no data on any changes to the speed with which PDS 70b is continuing to grow or how close it is to completing its growth.  However, string enough snapshots together over time and they begin to form a moving picture that provides more information than a single one ever could.  With luck, Hubble will continue to collect more data on the PDS 70 system using Dr. Zhou’s techniques to track the progress of its planet’s fascinating creation process.

Learn More:
Hubblesite – Exoplanet PDS 70B Is Gobbling Up Gas And Dust As It Continues To Build Mass
The Astronomical Journal – Hubble Space Telescope UV and H? Measurements of the Accretion Excess Emission from the Young Giant Planet PDS 70 b
Sci-News – Hubble Captures First-Ever Ultraviolet Image of Exoplanet
SyFy – HUBBLE SEES A NEARBY VERY YOUNG EXOPLANET FINISHING UP A GROWTH SPURT

Lead Image:
Artist’s conception of the PD 70b planet being formed showing material flowing along magnetic fields into the atmosphere.
Credit: McDonald Observatory – UT, Yifan Zhou (UT), NASA, ESA, STScI, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

2 Replies to “Astronomers are Watching a gas Giant Grow, Right in Front of Their Eyes”

  1. SO MUCH comes from Hubble! Why has it taken this long for a successor (JWST) to be almost ready? Considering the value, something with 10x the diameter should’ve been launched within 5-10 years after hubble.

    1. Great suggestion! But they couldn’t (still can’t) fit such a telescope within a rocket fairing, which is why they had to develop a new generation of foldable large space telescopes.

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