The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) observed the tell-tale signs of a star being born.
ESO explained in a press release that the star, AB Aurigae, was surrounded by a dense disc of dust and gas. Astronomers spotted a prominent spiral structure with a “twist” within the dust.
According to the research team, the twist “marks the site where a planet may be forming”. If that is the case, it could be the first direct evidence of a planet coming into existence.
Anthony Boccaletti, who led the study from the Observatoire de Paris, PSL University, France, explains that “thousands of exoplanets have been identified so far, but little is known about how they form”.
Astronomers do know planets are born in dusty discs surrounding young stars, such AB Aurigae, but it hasn’t been observed as yet. Boccaletti adds:
“We need to observe very young systems to really capture the moment when planets form”.
The ESO’s VLT newest observation was published in Astronomy & Astrophysics and provides the research team with vital information to understand the process.
The spiral of the dust in which the new planet may be forming is located approximately 520 light-years from Earth and situated in the constellation of Auriga (The Charioteer).
According to Emmanuel Di Folco of the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux (LAB), spirals such as the one in Auriga could signal the presence of “baby planets”.
Planets form when the spiral “kick the gas to create disturbances in the disc in the form of a wave, somewhat like the wake of a boat on a lake”, Di Folco adds.
The wave will then be trapped in the spiral arm as the planet rotates around the star. The very bright yellow “twist” close to the centre of the image, is one of these disturbance sites where a planet could be forming.
Some years back, a team of researcher observed the AB Aurigae system with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and spotted two arms close to the star.
The research findings confirmed the presence of the spiral arms first detected by ALMA, and also located the “twist” feature. Researcher and co-author Anne Dutrey explains:
“The twist is expected from some theoretical models of planet formation. It corresponds to the connection of two spirals – one winding inwards of the planet’s orbit, the other expanding outwards – which join at the planet location. They allow gas and dust from the disc to accrete onto the forming planet and make it grow.”
Boccaletti adds that the powerful telescope will allow astronomers to get even more detailed views of planets in the making, saying:
“We should be able to see directly and more precisely how the dynamics of the gas contributes to the formation of planets”.