In a fiery swirl of orange gas, a new planet is born — witnessed by astronomers for the very first time

Disc around the young AB Aurigae star, where ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has spotted signs of planet birthESO

  • Astronomers have captured what looks to be the birth of a new planet for the very first time, 520 light-years from Earth.
  • Images taken by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) are the deepest images of the AB Aurigae star system till date.
  • The bright yellow “twist” at the centre is the new planet winding inwards into its orbit and expanding outwards to kick out gas and dust — making some room for itself.
For the first time in human history, astronomers were witness to the birth of a new planet. The European Southern Observatory ( ESO) released an image of a fiery-looking orange mass of gas that shows the cosmic matter of the universe at a gravitational tipping point — which it believes to “telltale” signs of a star system being born.

The ‘twist’ (in very bright yellow) marks the spot where a planet may be formingESO

The planet is forming around a young star called AB Aurigae around 520 light-years from Earth. The spiral formation captured by the Very Large Telescope (VLT) signals the presence of a baby planet.

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Wide-field view of the region of the sky where AB Aurigae is locatedESO

The pictures captured by the SPHERE instrument on the VLT are the deepest images of the AB Aurigae system obtained to date.


Explaining the birth of a star
The distance between AB Aurigae and the new planet is approximately the same as the distance between Neptune and the Sun — around 4.5 billion kilometres.

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"The twist is expected from some theoretical models of planet formation,” said co-author of the study published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, Anne Dutrey. She explains that it shows how the two spirals are meeting up where the planet is being born. One is winding inwards towards the planet’s orbit and the other is expanding outwards, kicking out the gas and dust, allowing a planet to grow.

The image on the right is a zoomed-in version of the area indicated by a red square on the image on the left. It shows the inner region of the disc, including the very-bright-yellow ‘twist’ (circled in white) that scientists believe marks the spot where a planet is forming. ESO

As the gas kicks outwards, “disturbances in the disc in the form of a wave, somewhat like the wake of a boat on a lake,” explained Emmanuel Di Folco, who also participated in the study. The wave gets shaped into a spiral arm as the planet rotates around the central star as seen by the bright yellow ‘twist’ region at the centre.

Astronomers knew this was going to happen years ago
“Thousands of exoplanets have been identified so far, but little is known about how they form,” added lead author of the study, Anthony Boccaletti. He embarked on the mission to find a newly forming planet after the first hints of a new planet being born were observed a few years ago with the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA).
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“We need to observe very young systems to really capture the moment when planets form,” he explained. He and his team fine-tuned the SPHERE instrument on the VLT to observe if there had been any further developments. The result was some of the most in-depth images of the star system till date.

Not only do they confirm the observations that were initially made by ALMA, but also captured the enigmatic ‘twist’, which is the key to their assumption that it could be a new planet being born before their very own eyes.

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