Youngest Planet Picture: Gas Giant Seen in Throes of Creation

A new picture of a Jupiter-like world swaddled in gas and dust is a direct image of what may be the youngest planet yet seen, astronomers report.

The newborn gas giant, dubbed LkCa 15b, orbits a sunlike star 450 light-years away in the northern constellation Taurus.

The planet orbits inside a disk of material around the star that’s no more than two million years old. By contrast, astronomers estimate our solar system is 4.6 billion years old.

The big baby planet may be up to six times the mass of Jupiter, according to theory-based calculations, and it appears to orbit 11 times farther from its parent star than Earth does from our sun.

The new picture was made in near-infrared light, but “the planet would probably appear a deep red to our eye, since it’s still glowing from the heat of being formed,” said Adam Kraus, lead study author and an astronomer at the University of Hawaii.

Kraus and colleagues zeroed in on the young star based on previous observations that showed a conspicuous gap in the star’s surrounding debris disk.

Such gaps are thought to be telltale signs that massive, newly formed planets are circling inside the disks—a protoplanet’s gravity would clear away a wide swath of gas and dust as it accumulates matter.

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