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Scientists watch a new planet form

Image of a planet caught in the very act of formation around a dwarf star
Image from the SPHERE instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope shows the first clear image of a planet caught in the very act of formation around the dwarf star PDS 70. Image: ESO/A. Müller et al.

For the first time, scientists have caught sight of a ring of dust and debris around a planet as it forms. The new results were published this week in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters, and they shed light on the process of planetary formation.

Why it matters: The disk surrounding the planet — named PDS 70 b — is viewed as a sign that moons could form around it, which is estimated to be about 4–17 times more massive than Jupiter.

  • The planet is orbiting a star 370 light-years from Earth.
  • “We think the large moons of Jupiter and other gas giants were born in such a disc, so our work helps to explain how planets in our solar system formed,” one of the researchers behind the new study, Valentin Christiaens, said in a statement.

What they did: The scientists used the Very Large Telescope in Chile to stare at the planet and spot the disc surrounding it.

  • PDS 70 b was discovered in 2018 by the same telescope, and its star — called PDS 70 — is thought to be about 6 million years old, making it much younger than our sun.
  • The star’s age indicates that it’s still in the relatively early stages of development, as the large disk of ice, gas and dust surrounding it coalesces into planets.

The backdrop: Another planet — named PDS 70 c — was also spotted orbiting the star recently.

  • According to a separate study published in the journal Nature Astronomy this week, both PDS 70 b and PDS 70 c are carving gapsfor themselves in the circumstellar disk around the star as they consume up material, growing in orbit.

What’s next: By studying this solar system so far from our own, scientists will be able to piece together more about how planets, moons and stars form.