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500 light-years away, young exoplanet offers glimpse into Earth's early years

Researchers at the University of Arizona say they have discovered a large, young exoplanet 500 light years from Earth by using the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona. Photo Courtesy of University of Arizona.
Researchers at the University of Arizona say they have discovered a large, young exoplanet 500 light years from Earth by using the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona. Photo Courtesy of University of Arizona.

July 6 (UPI) -- Researchers at the University of Arizona say they have discovered an exoplanet that explains the formation of spiral arms around a young star system 500 light-years away from Earth, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The exoplanet, dubbed MWC 758c, orbits around a star that is only a few million years old, a fraction of the 4.5 billion years since our own sun formed.

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The planet was observed using the UArizona's Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer, which uses two 8.4-meter mirrors that can observe light at long wavelengths, including within the infrared spectrum.

"Even though the exoplanet is estimated to be at least twice the mass of Jupiter, it was invisible to other telescopes because of its unexpected red color," researchers said in a press release Thursday.

Study co-author Steve Ertel said the LBTI uses similar principles as NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.

The star's young age is apparent from the presence of a protoplanetary disk of gas and dust that typically bleeds out into space, is absorbed by the star, or forms into planets over the course of millions of years.

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The spiral arms around the star were first discovered in 2013, prompting astronomers to speculate that the spiral arms were the result of planets forming.

"Our study puts forward a solid piece of evidence that these spiral arms are caused by giant planets," said study lead author Kevin Wagner of UArizona's Steward Observatory.

The researchers say the discovery offers a window into the formation of our own solar system.

"I think of this system as an analogy for how our own solar system would have appeared less than 1% into its lifetime," said Wagner.

"Our observation of this new planet further supports the idea that giant planets form early on, accreting mass from their birth environment, and then gravitationally alter the subsequent environment for other, smaller planets to form," Wagner continued.

Of about 30 protoplanetary disks that have been observed by astronomers, about one-third have spiral arms similar to the ones observed near MWC 758c.

Wanger hopes the James Webb Space Telescope will help discover similar young planets.

In January, researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., announced that the James Webb Space Telescope had discovered an exoplanet similar in size to Earth.

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