Astronomers have – for the very first time – directly witnessed a baby planet being born.
Using observations from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, the researchers found telltale signs of new planetary life within a dense disc of dust and gas around the young star AB Aurigae.
Deep in the disc, they found a prominent spiral structure with a “twist” – a giveaway sign of a planet forming.
According to the researchers, it could be the first ever direct evidence of a baby planet coming into existence.
“Thousands of exoplanets have been identified so far, but little is known about how they form,” said Anthony Boccaletti, who led the study from the Observatoire de Paris.
“We need to observe very young systems to really capture the moment when planets form.”
Unfortunately, it has historically been very difficult to capture images of these young discs that are sharp and deep enough to find the “twist” marking where a planet is being born.
But the new images feature a stunning spiral of dust and gas around AB Aurigae, located 520 light-years away from Earth in the constellation of Auriga – the charioteer.
The baby planets create disturbances in the disc surrounding the star, kinking its shape – like the waves behind a boat on a lake.
As the planet rotates around the central star, this wave gets shaped into a smaller spiral arm.
Close to the centre of the image of AB Aurigae, the bright yellow twist indicates a planet being born – at about the distance from the star as Neptune is from our sun.
Although astronomers know planets form from the disc of cold gas and dust surrounding young stars, this has not been directly observed before.
The new study published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics provides crucial clues allowing scientists to understand how this happens.