Astronomers find a newly formed planet, witness the birth of a solar system

ESO
An artist's rendering of a planet forming around the star HD 100546.

Not too long ago, in an environment none too far away, scientists found themselves suspicious of the gaseous clouds circling a star known as HD 100546, and for good reason: It had something growing quietly inside its depths.

With the help of infrared imagery, a team of researchers found themselves becoming acquainted with a bright blob within the planetary disk of a young star named HD 100546, a blob that may well be a nascent planet.

According to researchers based out of ETH Zurich in Switzerland, the maybe-planet lies around 70 astronomical units (AU) from its star—or around 70 times the distance between Earth to our Sun—and believe that it's similar in nature to Jupiter. Even though astronomers have spotted many exoplanets, this may be the first time we've observed a planet as it forms. And at 335 light years away, HD 100546 is fairly close to Earth by astronomical standards, so astronomers should have a relatively good view of this new planet.

One quirk about this planet is its distance from its star. At 70 AU, if this planet was part of our own solar system, it'd be out among the Kuiper Belt, home of dwarf planets like Eris and Makemake. No gas giant planets in our Solar System are that distant from the Sun, so astronomers are puzzled as to why this planet is so far from HD 100546.

Of course, there's no guarantee that this is a new planet: The research team cautions that this maybe-planet could be something else, like a more distant heavenly body of some kind. But that said, if this bright speck is indeed a planet, it should give astronomers a chance to learn more about how our own solar system came to be.

[ESO via TheWeek]

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