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Scientists are watching the birth of a planet

"It provides us with unique observational data on what happens when a gas giant is formed," said lead researcher Sascha Quanz.

By
Brooks Hays
A rendering depicts the formation of a giant gas planet circling the nearby star HD 100546. Photo by ESO / L. Calçada
A rendering depicts the formation of a giant gas planet circling the nearby star HD 100546. Photo by ESO / L. Calçada

ZURICH, Switzerland, July 1 (UPI) -- A team of astronomers in Switzerland have discovered a young gas giant still in the early stages of formation. The planet remains embedded in the accretion disc of its parent star.

The discovery, made with the help of the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, offers scientists the chance to observe planetary formation as it happens -- a first.

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The gas planet orbits a neighboring star called HD 100546, which lies some 335 light-years away. Scientists say the protoplanet is likely similar to our own solar system's Jupiter.

Because the young planet is located near the outer edge of its sun's circumstellar disk, there remains the possibility that it is an older planet that has been flung outward. But the chances of an older planet being expelled on a trajectory perfectly in line with accretion disc is are slim, researchers say.

"It's a scenario we still can't rule out completely," lead researcher Sascha Quanz, an astronomer at ETH Zurich, said in press release. "But it's much less likely than our explanation, which suggests that what we're seeing is the birth of a planet."

Quanz's team says an older star would have likely cleared out more of an orbital path, but the planet circling HD 100546 is still closely wrapped in gas, dust and debris.

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The discovery, detailed in the Astrophysical Journal, offers scientists a real life laboratory in which to watch the evolution of a gas giant.

"It provides us with unique observational data on what happens when a gas giant is formed," Quanz said -- as opposed to simply relying on computer models. "Now we have a kind of 'laboratory' that can give us empirical data."

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