London: Astronomers have captured the first direct images of a forming planet still embedded in a thick disc of gas and dust surrounding a young star, just 335 light-years from the Earth.
Using European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile, an international team of scientists studied the disc of gas and dust that surrounds the young star HD 100546, a relatively nearby neighbour located 335 light-years from the Earth.
The scientists were surprised to find what seems to be a planet in the process of being formed, still embedded in the disc of material around the young star. The candidate planet would be a gas giant similar to Jupiter.
"So far, planet formation has mostly been a topic tackled by computer simulations," said lead researcher Sascha Quanz from ETH Zurich in Switzerland.
"If our discovery is indeed a forming planet, then for the first time scientists will be able to study the planet formation process and the interaction of a forming planet and its natal environment empirically at a very early stage," Quanz said.
HD 100546 is a well-studied object, and it has already been suggested that a giant planet orbits about six times further from the star than the Earth is from the Sun. The newly found planet candidate is located in the outer regions of the system, about ten times further out.
The planet candidate around HD 100546 was detected as a faint blob located in the circumstellar disc revealed using the NAOS-CONICA (NACO) adaptive optics instrument on the telescope, combined with pioneering data analysis techniques.
The observations were made using a special coronagraph in NACO which operates at near-infrared wavelengths and suppresses the brilliant light coming from the star at the location of the protoplanet candidate.
According to current theory, giant planets grow by capturing some of the gas and dust that remains after the formation of a star.
The astronomers have spotted several features in the new image of the disc around HD100546 that support this protoplanet hypothesis.
Structures in the dusty circumstellar disc, which could be caused by interactions between the planet and the disc, were revealed close to the detected protoplanet, researchers said in a statement.
However, it is also possible that the newly detected object might not be a protoplanet, but a fully formed planet which was ejected from its original orbit closer to the star.