An international team of astronomers has photographed the youngest planet recorded to date – and it might tell us more about planetary formation.
The protoplanet, which is a planet in its developmental stages, is still shrouded in the matter it’s forming from and orbits the star AB Aurigae, about 531 light-years from our Sun.
The researchers identified the protoplanet with imagery of AB Aurigae taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Subaru Telescope, in Hawaii, US. They’ve published their findings in Nature Astronomy.
Analysis of the images shows that the anomaly in the star’s orbit can’t be reflected starlight, and it can’t be an older planet. The researchers say that the best fit is a protoplanet, still surrounded by a protoplanetary disc. The protoplanet is likely becoming a gas giant, like Jupiter (a Jovian planet).
The most unusual thing about the protoplanet is its distance from its star: it’s 93 AU (astronomical units) away. For context, Earth is one AU away from our Sun, and Neptune is only 30.
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Previously, it was thought that the rocky cores of Jovian planets had to form much closer to the centre of stars than this. But if this discovery pans out, then the canonical theory of Jovian planet formation needs work.
“This study sheds new light on our understanding of the different ways that planets form,” says lead author Dr Thayne Currie, an astrophysicist at the NASA-Ames Research Center, US, and the Subaru Telescope.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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