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The potential gas giant is called HD 100546-b and could grow much larger than Jupiter. (ESO / L. Calçada)

Birth of a Planet?

Scientists catch the first glimpses of what may be a gas giant being formed in deep space

By Zach Jones | March 5 , 2013
<p>Scientists took this image of HD 100546-b using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. (ESO / NASA / ESA / Ardila et al.)</p>

Scientists took this image of HD 100546-b using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. (ESO / NASA / ESA / Ardila et al.)

Scientists have many theories about how new planets are born. But they have never seen one actually take shape—until now.

Astronomers using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope believe they have spotted a baby planet forming in deep space.

“If we are correct, this is the first time we are seeing a planet forming inside its natal [just born] environment,” says astronomer Sascha Quanz, leader of the team that made the discovery.

If this dust cloud is a new planet, it’s a big one. HD 100546-b, as the new formation is called, could grow much larger than Jupiter, the biggest planet in our solar system. Scientists think HD 100546-b is a gas giant. Gas giants are huge planets like Jupiter and Saturn that are made mostly from gases like hydrogen and helium.

HD 100546-b is located 335 light-years from Earth. A light year is the distance light can travel in one year, or about 6 trillion miles. So the baby planet may seem far, but compared with many other distant stars and galaxies in our universe, it’s actually relatively close. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is 100,000 light-years wide.

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What makes this discovery so special? Scientists are excited because the images they have captured are a photographic first. But they may also have learned something new about how planets get started.

Before now, astronomers thought planets had to be very close to their stars during formation. But scientists estimate that HD 100546-b is about 68 times farther from its star than Earth is from our sun.

When the right mixture of cosmic dust comes together near a young star, a planet begins to form. Slowly, the planet creates its own gravity. That allows the planet to pull material from the disk of gases and other matter floating around the star.

Scientists hope to study how a planet could form so far away from a star, and how that planet might evolve, or grow and change, differently than one growing close to its star. “We can try to find out the chemical and physical properties of the disk that causes a planet to form there,” says Quanz.

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