Birth of a Giant Planet Witnessed with the Very Large Telescope

First Posted: Jul 03, 2015 06:57 AM EDT

Scientists may have observed the birth of a planet. Researchers have used data from the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to watch a young gas planet orbiting a star designated HD 100546.

The star itself is just 335 light-years away, which makes it one of the cosmic cousins to our sun. It's about five to ten million years old, which makes it relatively young in astronomical terms. Like many young stars, it's surrounded by a massive disk of gas and dust. The outer reaches of this disk are home to young planet, the protoplanet, which lies at a distance from its star about 50 times greater than the distance between Earth and the sun.

The scientists first postulated the existence of the young planet in an initial research paper published in 2013. At the time, the scientists were still debating another possible explanation for the data that they had collected-namely that the observed object might be a more massive giant planet that had formed further inside the disk before being hurled outward.

If this were an older planet, though, its ejection trajectory would have to meet certain conditions for the researchers to be able to observe it now; it would have to be ejected directly in the planet of gas and dust and at precisely the right time. Instead, the scientists believe that this is a young planet.

Based on observations, the researchers were able to find out the object's size and temperature. The protoplanet is about seven times that of Jupiter and is over 600 degrees Celsius. The researchers also hope to investigate a bit further to see if another planet is orbiting the star.

"It provides us with unique observational data on what happens when a gas giant is formed," said Sascha Quanz, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Now we have a kind of 'laboratory' that can give us empirical data."

The findings are published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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