Scientists have captured a photo of a planet in the making for the first time using sophisticated new instruments and techniques.
The forming planet resides in a gap in the transition disc, or planetary "nursery, of the star LkCa15, the University of Arizona reported. The star is located 450 light-years away from Earth, but despite the distance researchers were still able to capture the stunning images of a planet in the process of formation.
"No one has successfully and unambiguously detected a forming planet before," said Kate Follette, a former UA graduate student now doing postdoctoral work at Stanford University. "There have always been alternate explanations, but in this case we've taken a direct picture, and it's hard to dispute that."
Protoplanetary disks form around young stars out of the debris left over from their formation. It is believed that planets form within these discs and collect the dust and debris, as opposed to the material remaining in the disc or falling into the host star. This phenomenon creates a gap in the disc in which the planets could form. The groundbreaking new observations back up this view.
"The reason we selected this system is because it's built around a very young star that has material left over from the star-formation process," Follette said. "It's like a big doughnut. This system is special because it's one of a handful of disks that has a solar-system size gap in it. And one of the ways to create that gap is to have planets forming in there."
Scientists are now able to image fascinating processes such as planetary formation thanks to new instruments and techniques developed by the University of Arizona researchers. These innovations include the Large Binocular Telescope (the largest telescope in the world), and the Magellan Telescope which boasts an adaptive optics system.
"Results like this have only been made possible with the application of a lot of very advanced new technology to the business of imaging the stars," said professor Peter Tuthill of the University of Sydney, one of the study's co-authors, "and it's really great to see them yielding such impressive results."
The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Nature.