Scientists have used the most powerful telescope ever built for peering into the depths of the universe to witness a planet being born for the first time.
The newborn world was snapped using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile’s Atacama desert and is thought to be 370 light years from Earth.
It was the telescope’s Sphere instrument, which allows experts to measure the brightness of the planet, that initially made the discovery.
Researchers were alerted to the birth of the new world by analysing different wavelengths of light to measures the properties of its atmosphere.
The discovery is a significant step forward in space exploration and provides new insight into how planets form.
This spectacular image from the Sphere instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope is the first clear image of a planet caught in the very act of formation around the dwarf star PDS 70. The planet stands clearly out, visible as a bright point to the right of the centre of the image
The discovery was led by a team at the Max Plank Institute for Astronomy as part of the European Southern Observatory project.
Dubbed PDS 70b, the new planet is seen emerging from the shadow of its young star as the solar system forms.
Previous attempts to watch planet formation have been obscured by a cloud of dust from the new world.
However, this latest image from the VLT bypassed the dust by analysing the light around the newly-formed planet.
The dark region at the centre of the image produced is due to a filter which blocks the blinding light of the star and allows astronomers to detect the planet.
The planet itself is the bright orb of light to the right of the black disk.
The coronograph is a key part of the discovery, as without it, the sheer brightness of the light produced by its host star PDS 70 would overwhelm any light coming from the planet, making it indistinguishable.
WHAT IS THE VERY LARGE TELESCOPE?
The European Southern observatory (ESO) built the most powerful telescope ever made and called it the Very Large Telescope (VLT).
The telescope is widely regarded as one of the most advanced optical instruments ever made and consists of four Telescopes.
The main mirrors measures 8.2 metres (27 feet) in diameter and there are also four movable 1.8 metre (six feet) diameter auxiliary telescopes.
The large telescopes are called Antu, Kueyen, Melipal and Yepun.
The first of the Unit Telescopes, ‘Antu’, went into routine scientific operations on 1 April 1999.
The telescopes can work together to form a giant ‘interferometer’.
This interferometer allows images to be filtered for any unnecessary obscuring objects and, as a result, astronomers can see details up to 25 times finer than with the individual telescopes.
It has been involved in spotting the first image of an extrasolar planet, tracking individual stars moving around the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way and observing the afterglow of the furthest known Gamma ray burst.
‘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,’ explains Miriam Keppler, who lead the team behind the discovery of PDS 70’s still-forming planet.
‘The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc.’
It is believed that the planet is roughly 1.8 billion miles (three billion kilometres) from the central star, about the same as the distance between Uranus and the Sun.
For scale, that is almost as far as travelling around Earth’s equator almost 75,000 times.
Despite being this far from its star, the gas giant has a mass a few times heavier than Jupiter and its surface temperature exceeds 1,000°C (1832°F).
The newborn world was snapped using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (pictured) in Chile’s Atacama desert and is thought to be 370 light years from Earth. It filtered out the signals of other celestial bodies to make the discovery possible
Sphere had to use specially designed observing strategies and data processing techniques to filter out the signal of the faint planetary companions around the bright young star to make this discovery possible.
Thomas Henning, director at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and leader of the teams, summarises the scientific adventure: ‘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!’
The Kepler telescope has been used to capture pictures of planets in their formative years, but not at this level of detail.
Dr Keppler says that the methods employed by the Kepler telescope, which is in orbit, are not perfect.
Kepler looks for drops in brightness as a planet passes in front of the star.
‘In this case we now have a direct image [of the planet] in its ‘birthplace’, which is the circumstellar disc,’ Dr Keppler told The Guardian.
‘This is especially important because people have been wondering [for a long time], how these planets actually form and how the dust and the material in this disc forms [into] a planet, and now we can directly observe this.’
The full findings will be published in two upcoming papers in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.
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