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Astronomers Witness Youngest Planet's Birth for the First Time


"...we immediately knew we were seeing something new."

Witnessing birth of any kind is a miracle to see, but witnessing the birth of a brand new planet is especially rare. In fact, scientists have just now taken the first photographs of such a newly forming planet.

"LkCa 15 b is the youngest planet ever found, about five times younger than the previous record holder," said Adam Kraus, lead author and astronomer at the University of Hawaii, in a statement. "For the first time, we’ve been able to directly measure the planet itself as well as the dusty matter around it."

Researchers believe LkCA 15 b is a hot “protoplanet” surrounded by a swath of cooler dust and gas, which is falling into the still-forming planet. And as Space.com reports, it's a "big baby:"

As far as infants go, LkCa15 b looks like a whopper, perhaps harboring as much mass as six Jupiters. But since the planet is still forming, it could end up being considerably smaller, Kraus explained.

"A lot of the light that we’re seeing from this object could be released by this material falling on it," he said. "So, six Jupiter masses should really be regarded as an upper limit. It may be that very little of the light is coming from the planet, and it could be much less massive."

However big it is, the alien world is definitely young. Its parent star, which is about as massive as the sun, is only about 2 million years old, Kraus said.

In order to see the planet, researchers had to used a technique called aperture mask interferometry with Keck’s Adaptive Optics, which allowed the manipulate light waves to cancel out bright light of stars and see the dimmer planet forming.

"Interferometry has actually been around since the 1800’s, but through the use of adaptive optics has only been able to reach nearby young suns for about the last 7 years.” said Michael Ireland, who presented their findings at the NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center on Oct. 19. “Since then we’ve been trying to push the technique to its limits using the biggest telescopes in the world, especially Keck.”

Researching 15 "dusty stars" specifically, Kraus and Ireland are gathering data on planet and solar system formation.

“LkCa 15 was only our second target, and we immediately knew we were seeing something new,” said Kraus. “We could see a faint point source near the star, so thinking it might be a Jupiter-like planet we went back a year later to get more data.”

[H/T Popular Science]

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