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.

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A Strange Planet has been Found that’s Smaller than Neptune But 50% More Massive

An artist's impression of K2-25b orbiting its host star, and M-dwarf in the Hyades cluster. Image Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. Pollard

Astronomers have found another strange exoplanet in a distant solar system. This one’s an oddball because its size is intermediate between Earth and Neptune, yet it’s 50% more massive than Neptune.

Astronomers have found what they call “puff planets” in other Solar Systems. Those are planets that are a few times more massive than Earth, but with radii much larger than Neptune’s. But this planet is the opposite of that: it’s much more massive than Neptune, but it also has a much smaller radius. Super-dense, not super-puffy.

This oddball planet is calling into question our understanding of how planets form.

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A Neptune-class exoplanet has been found with its atmosphere stripped away

Voyager 2 captured this image of Neptune in 1982, when it was over 7 million km (4.4 million miles) away from the planet. The Great Dark Spot in the middle of the image was the first storm ever seen on Neptune. Image: By NASA (JPL image) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What happens when a giant planet gets stripped of its atmosphere? It leaves behind a giant core, rich in iron and other metals. A team using NASA’s TESS mission recently found such a remnant core, orbiting a star just 730 light-years away.

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Huge Stars Can Destroy Nearby Planetary Disks

The brilliant tapestry of young stars flaring to life resembles a glittering fireworks display in this Hubble Space Telescope image. The sparkling centerpiece of this fireworks show is a giant cluster of thousands of stars called Westerlund 2. The cluster resides in a raucous stellar breeding ground known as Gum 29, located 20,000 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Carina. Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 pierced through the dusty veil shrouding the stellar nursery in near-infrared light, giving astronomers a clear view of the nebula and the dense concentration of stars in the central cluster. The cluster measures between six light-years and 13 light-years across. Credits: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), A. Nota (ESA/STScI) and the Westerlund 2 Science Team

Westerlund 2 is a star cluster about 20,000 light years away. It’s young—only about one or two million years old—and its core contains some of the brightest and hottest stars we know of. Also some of the most massive ones.

There’s something unusual going on around the massive hot stars at the heart of Westerlund 2. There should be huge, churning clouds of gas and dust around those stars, and their neighbours, in the form of circumstellar disks.

But in Westerlund 2’s case, some of the stars have no disks.

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This is an Actual Image of a Planet-Forming Disc in a Distant Star System

An image of AB Aurigae from the ESO's VLT and its SPHERE instrument, showing what scientists think is a baby planet forming. Image Credit: ESO/Boccaletti et al.

In 2017, astronomers used ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array) to look at the star AB Aurigae. It’s a type of young star called a Herbig Ae star, and it’s less then 10 million years old. At that time, they found a dusty protoplanetary disk there, with tell-tale gaps indicating spiral arms.

Now they’ve taken another look, and found a very young planet forming there.

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