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Scientists capture first image of newborn planet

Astronomers have captured the first confirmed image of a newborn planet, forming around a young dwarf star 370 light years away.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany snapped the spectacular picture of a planet forming around the star PDS 70 from the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.

Operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the telescope has one of the most sophisticated planet-hunting instruments in existence, known as SPHERE.

Known in full as Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch, SPHERE made the first robust detection of a newborn planet by measuring the different wavelengths of light through its atmosphere.

The images that the team captured show the planet as a bright point beside the black filter covering the star at the centre of the image.

Named PDS 70b, the planet is orbiting the central star at a distance of around three billion kilometres – similar to where Uranus is in our galaxy.

According to the researchers’ analysis, the planet is a gas giant which is even more massive than Jupiter, and has a surface temperature of around 1000C.

The filter – officially known as a coronagraph – blocks the light from the central star and allows astronomers to detect the much fainter planet and the discs surrounding the star.

The VLT in the Atacama, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Pic: ESO
Image: The Very Large Telescope complex in Chile. Pic: ESO

“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,” said Dr Miriam Keppler.

“The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc,” explained Dr Keppler, who lead the team behind the discovery of the planet.

The discovery was presented in two papers to be published in the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal.

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Both studies used the hi-tech capabilities of ESO’s SPHERE instrument, which uses a technique called high-contrast imaging to filter out the signals of planets from stars.

Thomas Henning, director at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and leader of both of the teams, said: “After more than a decade of enormous efforts to build this high-tech machine, now SPHERE enables us to reap the harvest with the discovery of baby planets!”

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