For the first time, scientists spot baby planets forming around an alien star

planetformation
IMAGE: NASA/JPL-CALTECH

For the first time, scientists have caught sight of planets in the hot, messy act of being born.

Astronomers using the Large Binocular Telescope and the Magellan Adaptive Optics System on Earth have discovered what appears to be at least one planet (called LkCa 15b) about the size of Jupiter or Saturn forming in orbit around its sunlike star.

The star system, called LkCa 15, could actually play host to multiple worlds still in the process of forming, according to a new study detailing the findings in the journal Nature.

By learning more about the young star system, scientists might be able to answer some long-unanswered questions about how planets form, including the origins of Earth.

“We see two planets, there might be a third one,” Stephanie Sallum, co-author of the new study and an astronomy graduate student at the University of Arizona, toldMashable in an interview.

Mysteries of planet formation

Planetary scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how planets form in the first place.

While this solar system is only one example of a forming alien star system, observing it could get scientists well on the way toward figuring out answers to some of the cosmic mysteries regarding planet formation.

For example, scientists now know that at least for this system, the Jupiter-sizedLkCa 15b is “moderately old,” astronomer Adam Kraus, a scientist unaffiliated with the study who has observed the LkCa 15 system, told Mashable via email.

This means that the planet started forming when the system was less than five million years old, but more than hundreds of thousands of years old.

This finding could help scientists learn more about the ages of other forming systems in the future.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that planet formation is a messy business — you don’t instantly take a disk of gas and dust and turn it into a Jupiter,” Kraus said.

“There’s a finite time where you’re assembling the planet, and you have blobs of material that are condensing and interacting. There’s no guarantee those blobs will necessarily even turn into planets.”

Gravitational wells help these planets form

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