When scanning the galaxy, scientists have observed planets of all types. However, for the first time, scientists are watching a baby planet in its infancy as it develops.
Little planet is growing up
The juvenile planet in question has been named LkCa 15 b, a mouthful and not terrifically catchy, but there you have it. The planet, like a growing boy needing his lunch, is presently devouring a steady diet of dust and super-heated gas in order to literally put on some weight. The planet, not unlike a human baby, has begun its life with a reddish hue.
“The ultimate question we all want to answer is, how common are Earth-like planets and how are they formed?” said Stanford University astronomer Kate Follette, one of the authors of the study that appearedd in Nature this week. “This is a step along the way.”
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The planet, which is 470 light-years from our solar system is located in the constellation Taurus, was discovered using a telescope in the high desert of Chile. Chile over the last couple of decades has become one of the premier astronomical research locations with such observatories as the ALMA site in the Atacama desert.
Why look there for forming planets?
Adam Kraus, a researcher at the University of Texas, hinted in the past that there might be a baby planet in the location where Follette and her team found their smoking gun. In this case, it’s the presence of super-heated hydrogen gas that confirmed the existence of a baby planet.
“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 difference in brightness between a star and a young exoplanet is usually comparable to the difference between a firefly and a lighthouse,” Follette continued. “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.”
Follette and co-lead of the study, University of Arizona graduate student Stephanie Sallum, believe that they will ultimately find three planets in the area. The two confirmed planets will likely become gas giants with one of them having started its life about two million years ago.
The unique find and commentary
When new starts come into being they create a disk housing gas and dust. These items are necessary in planetary formation. However, this same dust obscures these distant solar systems making the find somewhat remarkable.
In a commentary piece also published in the journal Nature, an astrophysicist at Princeton University, Zhaohuan Zhu, applauded the work of the two women and their discovery. “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.”