Stunning First Ever Photograph of a Newly Forming Planet

For decades, the most widely-accepted view of how our Solar System formed has been the Nebular Hypothesis. According to this theory, the Sun, the planets, and all other objects in the Solar System formed from nebulous material billions of years ago. This dust experienced a gravitational collapse at the center, forming our Sun, while the rest of the material formed a circumstellar debris ring that coalesced to form the planets.

Thanks to the development of modern telescopes, astronomers have been able to probe other star systems to test this hypothesis. Unfortunately, in most cases, astronomers have only been able to observe debris rings around stars with hints of planets in formation. It was only recently that a team of European astronomers were able to capture an image of a newborn planet, thus demonstrating that debris rings are indeed the birthplace of planets.

The team’s research appeared in two papers that were recently published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, titled “Discovery of a planetary-mass companion within the gap of the transition disk around PDS 70” and “Orbital and atmospheric characterization of the planet within the gap of the PDS 70 transition disk.” The team behind both studies included member from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) as well as multiple observatories and universities.

Near infrared image of the PDS70 disk obtained with the SPHERE instrument. Credit: ESO/A. Müller, MPIA

For the sake of their studies, the teams selected PDS 70b, a planet that was discovered at a distance of 22 Astronomical Units (AUs) from its host star and which was believed to be a newly-formed body. In the first study – which was led by Miriam Keppler of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy – the team indicated how they studied the protoplanetary disk around the star PDS 70.

PDS 70 is a low-mass T Tauri star located in the constellation Centaurus, approximately 370 light-years from Earth. This study was performed using archival images in the near-infrared band taken by the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch instrument (SPHERE) instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Near-Infrared Coronagraphic Imager on the Gemini South Telescope.

Using these instruments, the team made the first robust detection of a young planet (PDS 70b) orbiting within a gap in its star’s protoplanetary disc and located roughly three billion km (1.86 billion mi) from its central star – roughly the same distance between Uranus and the Sun. In the second study, led by Andre Muller (also from the MPIA) the team describes how they used the SPHERE instrument to measure the brightness of the planet at different wavelengths.

From this, they were able to determine that PDS 70b is a gas giant that has about nine Jupiter masses and a surface temperature of about 1000 °C (1832 °F), making it a particularly “Hot Super-Jupiter”. The planet must be younger than its host star, and is probably still growing. The data also indicated that the planet is surrounded by clouds that alter the radiation emitted by the planetary core and its atmosphere.

Thanks to the advanced instruments used, the team was also able to acquire an image of the planet and its system. As you can see from the image (posted at top) and the video below, the planet is visible as a bright point to the right of the blackened center of the image. This dark region is due to a corongraph, which blocks the light from the star so the team could detect the much-fainter companion.

As Miriam Keppler, a postdoctoral student at the MPIA, explained in a recent ESO press statement:

“These discs around young stars are the birthplaces of planets, but so far only a handful of observations have detected hints of baby planets in them. The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc.”

In addition to spotting the young planet, the research teams also noted that it has sculpted the protoplanetary disc orbiting the star. Essentially, the planet’s orbit has traced a giant hole in the center of the disc after accumulating material from it. This means that PDS 70 b is still located in the vicinity of its birth place, is likely to still be accumulating material and will continue to grow and change.

For decades, astronomers have been aware of these gaps in the protoplanetary disc and speculated that they were produced by a planet. Now, they finally have the evidence to support this theory. As André Müller explained:

Keppler’s results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly-understood early stages of planetary evolution. We needed to observe a planet in a young star’s disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation.

These studies will be a boon to astronomers, especially when it comes to theoretical models of planet formation and evolution. By determining the planet’s atmospheric and physical properties, the astronomers have been able to test key aspects of the Nebular Hypothesis. The discovery of this young, dust-shrouded planet would not have been were if not for the capabilities of ESO’s SPHERE instrument.

This instrument studies exoplanets and discs around nearby stars using a technique known as high-contrast imaging, but also relies on advanced strategies and data processing techniques. In addition to blocking the light from a star with a coronagraph, SPHERE is able to filter out the signals of faint planetary companions around bright young stars at multiple wavelengths and epochs.

As Prof. Thomas Henning – the director at MPIA, the German co-investigator of the SPHERE instrument, and a senior author on the two studies – stated in a recent MPIA press release:

“After ten years of developing new powerful astronomical instruments such as SPHERE, this discovery shows us that we are finally able to find and study planets at the time of their formation. That is the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream.”

Future observations of this system will also allow astronomers to test other aspects of planet formation models and to learn about the early history of planetary systems. This data will also go a long way towards determining how our own Solar System formed and evolved during its early history.

Further Reading: ESO, MPIA, Astronomy & Astrophysics, Astronomy & Astrophysics (2)