Two international teams of astronomers announced today (July 2, 2018) that the planet-hunting SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope has captured the first confirmed image of a newly forming planet. You’ll find the image below, or in the video above. The astronomers caught this planet in the act of being born inside the dusty disk of gas and dust surrounding the young star PDS 70. A giant gap in the disk around this star had been found by astronomers in 2012. Now they can see a young planet carving a path through the dust of the disk, creating the gap. They’ve also analyzed the planet spectroscopically, and, according to a statement from the European Southern Observatory (ESO):
The data suggest that the planet’s atmosphere is cloudy.
The ESO statement explained:
The SPHERE instrument also enabled the team to measure the brightness of the planet at different wavelengths, which allowed properties of its atmosphere to be deduced.
The planet stands out very clearly in the new observations, visible as a bright point to the right of the blackened center of the image. It is located roughly three billion kilometers [1.86 billion miles] from the central star, roughly equivalent to the distance between Uranus and the sun. The analysis shows that PDS 70b is a giant gas planet with a mass a few times that of Jupiter. The planet’s surface has a temperature of around 1000 degrees Celsius [1800 degrees Fahrenheit], making it much hotter than any planet in our own solar system …
The dark region at the center of the image [above] is due to a coronagraph, a mask which blocks the blinding light of the central star and allows astronomers to detect its much fainter disc and planetary companion. Without this mask, the faint light from the planet would be utterly overwhelmed by the intense brightness of PDS 70 …
In order to tease out the weak signal of the planet next to the bright star, astronomers use a sophisticated method that benefits from the Earth’s rotation. In this observing mode, SPHERE continuously takes images of the star over a period of several hours, while keeping the instrument as stable as possible. As a consequence, the planet appears to slowly rotate, changing its location on the image with respect to the stellar halo. Using elaborate numerical algorithms, the individual images are then combined in such a way that all parts of the image that appear not to move during the observation, such as the signal from the star itself, are filtered. This leaves only those that do apparently move – making the planet visible.
Bottom line: Astronomers have captured the first confirmed image of a newly forming planet, in the dusty disk of gas and dust surrounding the dwarf star PDS 70.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.