A University of Hawaii astronomer has captured the first direct image of a planet forming around a star. Dr. Adam Kraus used the twin 10 meter Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea, the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes, to find the planet. Dr. Kraus was working with Dr. Michael Ireland from Macquarie University, Sydney and the Australian Astronomical Observatory.
The planet is called LkCa 15 b, located in the LkCa 15 system, which is about 450 light years away. LkCa 15 b is a hot ‘protoplanet’ surrounded by cooler dust and gas, which is falling into the still-forming planet. It will become a Jupiter-like gas giant.
‘LkCa 15 b is the youngest planet ever found, about 5 times younger than the previous record holder,’ said Kraus. ‘This young gas giant is being built out of the dust and gas. In the past, you couldn’t measure this kind of phenomenon because it’s happening so close to the star. But, for the first time, we’ve been able to directly measure the planet itself as well as the dusty matter around it.’
Using a precision optical technique called aperture mask interferometry; the astronomers were able to capture the ground breaking images.
“We’ve been able to see, for the first time, a planet that is surrounded by dust and gas. This dusty matter is likely being deposited onto or ejected from the object,” said Dr. Ireland. “This kind of direct observation hasn’t been possible before as the light from the star is usually too bright to make accurate measurements. However, our technique enables us to account for the starlight so that we can still capture a high resolution image.”
Kraus presented the discovery at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre on Wednesday after his research paper on the discovery with Ireland was accepted by the Astrophysical Journal.
Kraus and Ireland plan to continue their observations of nearby young stars in their efforts to construct a clearer picture of how planets and solar systems form. Of their future research, Ireland said, “studying systems like these can help us to understand more about our own solar system in relation to others out there. It’s one of those big questions: how unique are we really?”