An international team led by Sascha Quanz (ETH Zurich, Switzerland) has studied a forming planet still embedded
in a thick disc of gas and dust that surrounds the young star HD 100546, a relatively nearby neighbour located 335
light-years from Earth.
Astronomers were surprised to find what seems to be a planet in the process of being formed, still embedded in the disc of material
around the young star. The candidate planet would be a gas giant similar to Jupiter.
“So far, planet formation has mostly been a topic tackled by computer simulations,” says Sascha Quanz. “If our
discovery is indeed a forming planet, then for the first time scientists will be able to study the planet formation
process and the interaction of a forming planet and its natal environment empirically at a very early stage.”
Click on image to enlarge
Artist's impression of a gas giant planet forming in the disc around the young star HD 100546. Credits: ESO
HD 100546 is a well-studied object, and it has already been suggested that a giant planet orbits about six times
further from the star than the Earth is from the Sun. The newly found planet candidate is located in the outer
regions of the system, about ten times further out.
The planet candidate around HD 100546 was detected as a faint blob located in the circumstellar disc revealed thanks
to the NACO adaptive optics instrument on ESO’s VLT, combined with pioneering data analysis techniques.
To these observations, astronomers used ESO’s Very Large Telescope and a special coronagraph in NACO, which
operates at near-infrared wavelengths and suppresses the brilliant light coming from the star at the location of the protoplanet candidate.
According to current theory, giant planets grow by capturing some of the gas and dust that remains after the formation of a sta.
The astronomers have spotted several features in the new image of the disc around HD100546 that support this
Structures in the dusty circumstellar disc, which could be caused by interactions between the planet and the disc,
were revealed close to the detected protoplanet. Also, there are indications that the surroundings of the protoplanet
are potentially heated up by the formation process.
Click on image to enlarge
VLT and Hubble images of the protoplanet system HD 100546. Credits: ESO
“Exoplanet research is one of the most exciting new frontiers in astronomy, and direct imaging of planets is
still a new field, greatly benefiting from recent improvements in instruments and data analysis methods.
In this research we used data analysis techniques developed for cosmological research, showing that cross-fertilisation
of ideas between fields can lead to extraordinary progress,” Adam Amara, another member of the team, said.