Astronomers Take First Image Of A Baby Planet

This is the first clear image of a planet caught in the act of formation around the star PDS 70, located 370 light years from Earth. The planet is the bright blob to the right of the center, The star is blacked out by a coronagraph mask used to block its blinding light. Without it, the faint light of the planet would be totally overwhelmed by the brilliance of the star. ESO/A. Müller et al.

Woo-hoo! Astronomers have their first image of a planet forming around its parent star. A group at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany captured the thrilling photo of a young planet named PDS 70b in orbit around the orange star PDS 70. They used the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) — one of the most powerful planet-hunting instruments ever made — to show the planet clearing a broad path through a dusty disk surrounding the star. Our solar system’s planets are thought to have formed from material in disks just like these more than 4.5 billion years ago.

PDS 70, located in the southern constellation Centaurus and home to the baby planet, is the orange star at the center of this photo. The star is 1.4 times the size of the sun but has only four-fifths of its mass. ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin

The SPHERE instrument also enabled the team to measure the brightness of the planet at different wavelengths or colors of light to discover that the planet was ensconced in clouds. PDS70b is located about 1.9 billion miles (3 billion km) from its host star, about the same distance Uranus is from the sun. It resembles the gas giant planet Jupiter but it’s several times more massive and also much hotter with  temperatures of around 1,830° F (1,000° C), more than twice as hot as Mercury and Venus.

“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,” explains Miriam Keppler, who lead the team behind the discovery of PDS 70’s still-forming planet.

As it revolves around PDS 70, the planet cuts a path through the primordial disk of dust and gas around the star, creating a giant “hole” in the center. These inner gaps have been known and photographed for decades, but astronomers could only speculate that hidden planets sculpted them. Now we can see the planet for the first time.

This glimpse of planetary youth was made possible by the SPHERE instrument, which studies exoplanets and disks by blocking the light from a star with a coronagraph and using clever observing strategies and data processing techniques to filter out the signal of the faint planetary companions around bright young stars.

This image, made with the ALMA array, shows the protoplanetary disk surrounding the young star HL Tauri. These new ALMA observations reveal substructures within the disc that have never been seen before and even show the possible positions of planets forming in the dark patches within the system. ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

I like looking at the photo and imagining the Earth kicking up the dust as it swung around the sun so long ago. Back then, the planet’s surface was molten rock with a suffocating atmosphere of hydrogen sulfide, methane, and 10 to 200 times as much carbon dioxide as today’s atmosphere, much of it originating in volcanoes. It took half a billion years for the surface to cool enough for liquid water to pool and then another billion and a half for early life to arrive at photosynthesis. Tiny bacteria used water, carbon dioxide and sunlight to survive and in the process released oxygen, a crucial gas necessary for our survival.

For more detailed information, see the two scientific papers here and here.

2 Responses

  1. DALLAS JOE

    We can see baby planets?
    but not the Moon , close – up ???
    LOL

    oh.. How is it we can communicate with “astronauts” on the moon, 240,000 miles away,
    with Walkie-Talkie technology…..
    but can’t get good reception with Cellphones here on Earth??? And
    we live near so many phone Towers ???

    that 60’s Technology was the best.

    1. astrobob

      Joe,
      We see baby planets only as blurry points of light. No details. They’re too far away. You can see the moon close up anytime through even a basic telescope. And you can see it really, really close up by checking the images taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which can get something like 30 miles from the moon’s surface.

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