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Scientists detect newborn planet that could be forming moons

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An artist's impression of the circumplanetary disk discovered around a young planet in the PDS 70 star system. Image courtesy of S. Dagnello/ALMA/ESO/NAOJ/NRAO
An artist's impression of the circumplanetary disk discovered around a young planet in the PDS 70 star system. Image courtesy of S. Dagnello/ALMA/ESO/NAOJ/NRAO

Aug. 10 (UPI) -- For the first time, scientists have discovered what appears to be a brand new planet, 395 light-years from Earth, that could be forming moons.

Scientists using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, recently detected gas in a circumplanetary disk, the third one ever discovered.

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Circumplanetary disks are comprised of gas, dust and debris around young planets that eventually form moons and other small, rocky objects.

This, the researchers say, suggests the presence of a very young, Jupiter-sized exoplanet, according to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and research published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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The discovery of the disk, and possible newborn planet, was made as scientists studied the young star, AS 209, in the constellation Ophiuchus.

They spotted a "blob of emitted light in the middle of an otherwise empty gap in the gas surrounding the star," according to NRAO. Scientists say the exoplanet could be the youngest ever detected, since its host star's age is estimated to be "just 1.6 million years."

The large exoplanet appears to be 18.59 billion miles from its host star, which is 200 times the distance between Earth and the sun, a large distance which stretches current theories of how planets are formed, according to the research team.

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Researchers are considering a few options as to how AS 209 could support such a large planet so far from its star. Among them, the disk was gravitationally unstable before the formation. But scientists say the disk appears to be currently stable and is relatively small.

"While it is not impossible that the disk was sufficiently massive in the past, the small present-day disk mass implies that the disk should have lost its mass very efficiently since then," researchers wrote in the paper, as they also contemplate whether there were enough pebbles to form a giant planet in the gas.

Further study of the gases in the circumplanetary disk will provide more information about how planets and moons form in the earliest stages of a solar system, researchers said.

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They also hope to confirm the planet's presence with future observations using the James Webb Space Telescope.

"The best way to study planet formation is to observe planets while they're forming," said Jaehan Bae, a professor of astronomy at the University of Florida and the lead author of the research. "We are living in a very exciting time when this happens thanks to powerful telescopes, such as ALMA and JWST."

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