First clear image of a new planet orbiting a distant star

The clearest image ever taken of a new planet, orbiting the star PDS 70. It was taken using the SPHERE instrument on the VLT. The black disk is the mask hiding the star itself. Image credit: ESO/A. Müller et al.

Astronomers have taken the first confirmed photo of a newborn planet in the act of forming around a very young star.

The baby world stands out as a bright blob in a disc of dust surrounding the dwarf star, which lies about 370 light-years away in the constellation of Centaurus.

Labelled PDS 70, the star is only 100 million years old itself, making it a little nipper compared to our 4.6 billion-year-old Sun.

A planet-hunting instrument called SPHERE captured the light from the new planet when it was attached to the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, in Chile.

By hiding the brilliant glare from the star with a mask called a coronagraph, SPHERE was able to reveal the new planet cutting its way through the surrounding dust.

Previously another team of astronomers has produced a remarkable movie of planets in an alien star system in Pegasus.

An international team of astronomers, led by Miriam Keppler, of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, made the latest find. The new planet is a giant gas ball, larger than Jupiter and lies approximately three billion km (a billion miles) from the star. Observations suggest its atmosphere is cloudy.

Related: The violent way that stars are born

The newborn planet is much hotter than any planet in our own Solar System, with a surface temperature of around 1,000° C, which is four times the maximum found in a domestic oven.

Dr Keppler said: “These discs around young stars are the birthplaces of planets, but so far only a handful of observations have detected hints of baby planets in them.

“The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc.”

Astronomers say the discovery of the new planet will help scientists learn more about how planets generally, including the Earth, were formed.


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