Photograph by Carrasco-Gonzalez, et al.; Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF
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Planets are in the very early stages of forming in the inner regions of the dusty disk surrounding this young star.

Photograph by Carrasco-Gonzalez, et al.; Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Surprising Picture Shows Planet Forming 450 Light-Years Away

New images of a star show what a planet looks like as it’s being born.

Near the center of a large, faraway disk resembling a celestial mandala, a young planet is in the process of being born.

Or rather, growing up.

At this early point in its life, the cosmic infant isn’t much more than a clump of dust. Containing between three and eight times more mass than Earth, the proto-planet is orbiting a young star called HL Tau, about 450 light-years away in the constellation Taurus. It’s tucked near the star, where scientists suspect rocky planets are likely to live—and where it’s often exceedingly difficult to see anything other than dusty starlight.

In 2014, astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/Sub-millimeter Array spotted the psychedelic disk. It contains gaps that could be telltale signs of forming planets, which surprised astronomers because the star is only around one million years old, or very young to have planets large enough to carve gaps in the disk.

So, several times in 2014 and 2015, teams re-observed the precocious assemblage with the Very Large Array of radio telescopes, which can peer into that dusty, near-star neighborhood in ways that ALMA can’t. That’s when scientists spied the little planet.

It’s the first good look scientists have gotten of a forming planet, but it’s not the first time they’ve caught one in the act of growing. Another notable observation, described last year in Nature, revealed a planet called LkCa 15 b forming around another distant star.

These young planets may still be dusty embryos, but in several million years they will be all grown up.

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