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Dublin: 8 °C Sunday 9 August, 2020

Astronomers locate youngest planet ever discovered

The planet – named LkCa 15 b – is 450 light years away from Earth and is still in the process of being formed.

Artist’s conception of the area near the planet LkCa 15 b.
Artist’s conception of the area near the planet LkCa 15 b.
Image: Karen L. Teramura, UH IfA. via University of Hawaii

ASTRONOMERS AT THE University of Hawaii have spotted the youngest planet ever discovered to date by using two 10-metre Keck telescopes.

The planet, named LkCa 15b, has described as a “protoplanet” as it is still being formed. Dust and gas circling a star that is about 2 million years old is creating the planet, said Adam Kraus of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy.

It is expected that LkCa 15b, which is approximately 450 light years from Earth, will eventually become a gas giant like Jupiter.

It is by far the youngest planet ever observed: usually scientists are unable to do so because of the brighter light emitted by the solar system surrounding a new planet. However, Kraus and his colleague Michael Ireland used mirrors to deflect the starlight and observe LkCa 15b.

‘The perfect time’

“We’re catching this object at the perfect time. We see this young star, it has a disc around it that planets are probably forming out of and we see something right in the middle of a gap in the disc,” Kraus said in a telephone interview.

Kraus presented the discovery Wednesday at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Kraus and Ireland’s research paper on the discovery is due to appear in The Astrophysical Journal.

Observing planets while they’re forming can help scientists answer questions like whether planets form early in the life of a star or later, and whether they form relatively close to stars or farther away.

Planets can change orbits after forming, so it’s difficult to answer such questions by studying older planets.

“These very basic questions of when and where are best answered when you can actually see the planetforming, as the process is happening right now,” Kraus said.

Other planets may also be forming around star

Other planets may also be forming around the same star. Kraus said he’ll continue to observe the star and hopefully will see other planets if there are in fact more.

Scientists hadn’t been able to see such young planets before because the bright light of the stars they’re orbiting outshines them.

Kraus and Ireland used both mirrors and a unique method of putting masks over most of the telescope mirror; the combination of these two techniques allowed the astronomers to obtain high-resolution images that let them see the faint planet next to the bright star.

The astronomers found the planet while surveying 150 young dusty stars. This led to a more concentrated study of a dozen stars.

The star LkCa 15 — the planet is named after its star — was the team’s second target. They immediately knew they were seeing something new, so they gathered more data on the star a year later.

Additional reporting by the AP

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