This Is the First Photo of a Planet Being Born

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The newborn gas giant — the bright spot to the right — is already several times the mass of Jupiter. ESO/A. Müller et al.

It may not be the most adorable baby picture you've ever seen, but this image of a newborn planet about 370 light-years away represents a monumentally special moment.

It's the first time a planet has been photographed being born.

Astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) and the European Southern Observatory (ESA) used special planet-hunting equipment attached to the Very Large Telescope in Chile's Atacama Desert to capture the new arrival.

The image shows a planet just as it's being cobbled together from the dusty disc that's hanging around a brand new star. The special equipment, called the SPHERE instrument, managed to catch the event in glorious detail. You can see it as a brilliant orb to the right of the dark patch in the center of the image.

Scientists surmise the baby planet is around 1.9 billion kilometers from the central star, PDS 70, or the distance between Uranus and the sun. And it's coming in hot — like 1000 degrees Celsius hot. No planet in our solar system generates near that kind of heat.

Eclipsed by stars

The image may help confirm what has long been only theory on how planets take shape.

For the most part, the birth of stars steals most of the scientific attention. After all, it's a pretty spectacular process — thanks to all those powerful fusion reactions — and it's also a lot easier to detect. A star's arrival also provides scientists with a trove of valuable insight into how our own sun came into being.

Hubble photo shows a small portion of the star-birthing Carina Nebula.
As you might expect, the birth of a star tends to get a lot of attention. NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI

Planets, on the other hand, are much more elusive. Stars, being stars and all, steal the spotlight quite literally by shining so brightly that they obscure nearby planets. Factor in the incredible distance involved and even our most powerful optical telescopes struggle to detect them.

But in this case, astronomers had an idea where to start looking. Back in 2012, the same researchers noted a suspicious gap in PDS 70's protoplanetary disc. That disc, which typically accompanies a star's birth, is also thought to be where planets are forged — as the dust, rocks and gas compress into pebbles, packing on weight until they're planet-sized.

"These discs around young stars are the birthplaces of planets, but so far only a handful of observations have detected hints of baby planets in them," astronomer Miriam Keppler of the MPIA noted in a press release. "The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc."

Was PDS 70 expecting?

Researchers decided to focus their equipment on that potential baby bump. And the hunch paid off.

When it comes to naming the bouncing baby planet, scientists wanted to make sure the apple didn't fall too far from the tree, so they named it PDS 70b, after the star it orbits.

And this exoplanet — the term used to describe any planet orbiting a star that is not our own — takes after its parent in at least one crucial way: It's got a heart of gas.

In fact, with a mass that's already several times more than that of Jupiter, PDS 70b is already one very gassy baby.