While we don't have real life images just yet, the illustrations that you are about to see are something really special. Today, a new study published in the journal Nature announced that scientists have seen something so unique that it has never been seen before: the formation of a planet.
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When a new star forms, it creates a disc like object that is full of dust and gas, basically what is needed to form a planet. However, it is difficult to catch them in this stage because it really doesn't look like anything extraordinary from out perspective. In the past we have found planets on the verge of death, planets that had just been formed, but we never found a planet that was forming, until now.
The study, which was led by University of Arizona grad student Stephanie Sallum and fellow graduate student and postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, Kate Follette. The two were working on different projects, but they were both focused in on one star, LkCa15, which is located about 450 light years away from Earth.
"The reason we selected this system is because it’s built around a very young star that has material left over from the star-formation process," Follette said in a statement. "It’s like a big doughnut. This system is special because it’s one of a handful of disks that has a solar-system size gap in it. And one of the ways to create that gap is to have planets forming in there."
The women both set their sights to look for protoplanets, and instead they saw the light emitted by the forming planet - a burning hot gas that comes in at 17,500 degrees Fahrenheit with a red glow.
"The difference in brightness between a star and a young exoplanet is usually comparable to the difference between a firefly and a lighthouse," Follette said in a statement. "It's very hard to isolate the light from the planet when it is so faint and so close to the star from our point of view. But, because we could focus on a special color of light where the planet is glowing very brightly, the signal was significantly stronger than what we normally look for."
They were able to see the orbits of two younger planets that will likely by gas giants.
In a commentary article for Nature, Zhaohuan Zhu, an astrophysicist at Princeton University who wasn't involved in the study, wrote that such direct images of planetary formation could help answer a lot of questions. “Little is known about how microscopic dust particles can grow 14 orders of magnitude to become a giant planet," he wrote, but "the authors have demonstrated a powerful technique to find young planets in circumstellar disks, one that will discover many such planets in the future."
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