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Tech & Science This star system could help us understand how baby planets grow up

06:40  12 june  2019
06:40  12 june  2019 Source:   popsci.com

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This star system could help us understand how baby planets grow up© J. Olmsted (STScI) An artist's rendering of the two exoplanets. It’s abundantly clear these days the universe is riddled with a lot more planets than we once thought. But we’ve only scratched the surface in finding and cataloguing those new worlds, and we continue to be amazed by the unique circumstances in which we see these worlds emerging. In findings published in Nature Astronomy on Monday, a team of astronomers announced the discovery of a two-planet star system 370 light-years away. It’s one of the only multi-planet systems scientists have ever directly imaged, and provides a fascinating opportunity to better understand the formation of planets from embryonic little masses into enormous bodies much larger than anything we’ve known nearby to Earth.

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The star at the center of it all is PDS 70, which is 5.6 million years old and just a smidgen lighter than the sun. It's certainly not a new target on an exoplanet hunter’s radar. Like many young stars, it’s still accreting gas, resulting in a massive orbital disk of gas and dust with a large 1.9 to 3.8 billion-mile-wide gap in the middle. We’ve been studying its accretion disk for some time.

The first planet, PDS 70 b, about four to 17 times more massive than Jupiter and with an orbital distance similar to Uranus, was actually found last year. “We generally expected sooner or later to find a protoplanet like it,” says study coauthor Julien Girard, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. “But it is the second planet that is such a surprise, since it is really close to the disk gap.”

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This star system could help us understand how baby planets grow up . Scientists directly imaged two embryonic exoplanets 370 light-years away. the other planets in the solar system but was suddenly flipped over. important motivation is understanding planet formation more generally.

PDS 70 c, on the outer edge of the disk gap and with an orbit similar to Neptune, is the smaller sibling, coming in at just one to 10 times the mass of Jupiter. Combined, the two planets exert enough gravitational force on the matter swirling around the young star to partition the disk into two distinct segments.

Most exoplanets are found by observing their orbital transit in front of the host star, and measuring the dips in light in order to get a better sense of their size, mass, and other properties. But that’s a much different process from directly imaging another celestial body.

Circumstellar disks of dust and gas haven’t been well detected with smaller space telescopes or large Earth-based observatories. But the emergence of much stronger telescope technologies means we have the ability to scan more sensitively for light that’s scattered by these disks, and better understand the distribution of gas and dust around young stars. Sometimes there are gaps or rings or spirals in the disk, likely created by the gravitational impact of the protoplanets taking their spherical form. The question, then, is how do we find the planets that are generating these aberrations in the disk?

This star system could help us understand how baby planets grow up

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This star system could help us understand how baby planets grow up . Scientists directly imaged two embryonic exoplanets 370 strange peculiarities in star systems beyond our own—where planets exhibit bizarre alignments somewhat obscure special cases in our own solar system , and

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“Direct imaging of exoplanets is a challenging task,” says Sebastiaan Haffert, an astronomer based at the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands and the lead author of the new study. “The planets are separated by a millionth of a degree in the sky and are usually 100,000 to a million times fainter than the star. To image a planet we need advanced instruments that can provide the resolution and capabilities to block the glare of the star.”

Luckily, Haffert and his colleagues had such an instrument at their disposal: the high spectral resolution of the MUSE spectrograph on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Northern Chile. The team specifically leveraged the telescope’s ability to observe a special emission of a deep red wavelength called hydrogen alpha to sift through obscuring elements posed by the accretion disk to snap a shot of PDS 70 b and c.

This is just the second time we’ve been able to directly image a multi-planet system, but it’s a remarkable achievement given how young PDS 70 is, and the fact that this pair of fledgling planets are still growing and accreting gas and matter creates some obfuscation issues. The star system itself is not exactly thought to be a unique or rare system, but Girard does think it is “a real benchmark system to study planet formation” and how they interact with their surroundings.

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“We have never observed growing planets before,” says Haffert. “So anything that we learn about it, either how fast they grow or what kind of material, will have a major impact on what happens during the evolution of planets.”

The high-resolution images we’ve obtained, and the fact that its disk is of a size similar to that of our solar system, means there’s probably quite a bit we can learn that applies to the history of our own solar system. And the fact that we’ve been able to find these planets means there will likely be a new robust effort to find more planets taking shape in other accretion disks swirling around other distant star systems.

Haffert, Girard, and the rest of the team are currently busy monitoring the system for other chemical signatures, and measuring the growth rate of the tiny planets for signs of anything special, like potential moons that could be forming. “We have still much to learn from this very interesting system,” says Haffert.

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This star system could help us understand how baby planets grow up
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