A new planet could be forming over 300 million light years away from Earth.
An international team of scientists discovered the planet after studying the area around its star, HD 100546. The region near this star has a protoplanetary disk, which is a disk of material orbiting a relatively new star. Scientists believe that planets form from such disks. However, until now, they didn't have proof.
The team studied over a decade's worth of research from observations taken from the Gemini Observatory and the Very Large Telescope (which is actually a series of four telescopes) at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The telescopes captured infrared spectrographs of the area around HD 100546, allowing for study of how molecular gas moves around the star.
However, the discovery of the new planet was, like many things in science, made by chance. In researching the gas in the protoplanetary disk they were watching, they noticed changes in the gas' position over time. The spectrographs also revealed extra emissions of carbon monoxide molecules that scientists couldn't explain.
The team looked at other observations of the star over the years and tracked changes in both velocity and position of this extra gas, which they discovered swirling around a young planet.
Through computer modeling, the team looked at what was going on with this young planet. The only explanation they found for the gas orbiting it was that the planet was in the process of forming. They theorize that the gaseous material feeds from the protoplanetary disk into what's called a circumplanetary disk. This, in turns, feeds into the planet, which grows in response. This process could also result in the creation of moons around the planet, similar to our solar system's Jupiter.
"Our analysis strongly suggests we are observing a disk of hot gas that surrounds a forming giant planet in orbit around the star," says Dr. John Carr at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, one of the scientists behind the discovery. "While such circumplanetary disks have been theorized to surround giant planets at birth and to control the flow of gas onto the growing planet, these findings are the first observational evidence for their existence."
Carr concluded that if these results are correct, we have caught a planet in the act of its birth.
The team of scientists plan on continuing to monitor the area around star HD 100546. However, they'll lose sight of the planet in two years due to the way it's aligned with the protoplanetary disk. After that, it will be another 15 years before they'll get another good look at it.