Sometimes it can be difficult to comprehend the fact there is a whole universe out there, beyond our planet Earth.
And, not only is there a whole universe out there, but it keeps on getting bigger, as new planets emerge and form.
If you’re anything like me, your brain has probably already exploded thinking about the concept of brand new planets being born. Fortunately for us non-scientists though, a team of researchers have captured evidence of the birth of planet on film, and it’s nothing short of magnificent.
A star known as AB Aurigae has intrigued scientists for years. Based 520 light years away, it is surrounded by a thick layer of gas and dust, which in turn creates the perfect condition for new planets to form in. Pretty cool, right?
Previous observations have spotted spiral structures within the gas and dust, which suggests a developing planet could be lurking beneath. This new observation is especially exciting as seeing any structure within the spiral is extremely rare.
Anthony Boccaletti, an astronomer at the Observatoire de Paris, PSL University, led a team that took a closer look at this feature – the possible formation of a planet – which they say has produced ‘the most spectacular spirals imaged so far’.
Speaking to VICE, Boccaletti explained:
We went to that star because we already knew it was interesting if we wanted to investigate planet formation.
We knew the star was surrounded by gas and dust. In addition to that, we knew the disk had specific structural spirals in a cavity.
Now, scientists believe the spiralling effect is the byproduct of an interaction between emerging planets and the matter not only that surrounds them but seems to feed them too. The collision of the two young planets creates wave-like ripples in the gas around them, while they also consume the gas into their growing bodies.
In this way, the planet accretes and accumulates the gas and it forms a huge envelope we see in the giant planets in our solar system.
To build these atmospheres of gas, you really need something to bring the gas from somewhere and put it on the planet. This is the process we believe is working for these kinds of planets.
Boccatelli and his team wanted to capture images of the budding planet in more detail, using a Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE), which is located at the Very Large Telescope in Chile. This device is used to look for exoplanets – planets that don’t orbit the sun like we do.
In January this year, the team used SPHERE to successfully image the AB Aurigae system, beautifully capturing the emerging planet in the process. Although the planet can’t be seen itself in the images, the team were able to ‘resolve a feature in the form of a twist’ (shown in the white circle in the above image), which can be used and ‘perfectly reproduced’ in demonstrations of planet formation. The ‘twist’, the team believes, is the point at which the planet is forming by taking on the surrounding gas, dust and debris.
It’s hoped that future observations of AB Aurigae will allow scientists to discover more about the new and emerging planet, for example its mass and orbit.
The team are also planning to continue examining the system, in the hopes of working out its path around the star, or find out if it is fully formed or still in its planet-in-progress status.
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