Astronomers Catch A Baby Planet Being Born

An infrared image of the binary CS Cha with the newly discovered companion in the dotted circle. C. Ginski & SPHERE

An international team of astronomers have snapped an incredible picture of a young binary star system and discovered a small companion orbiting the double star. The researchers believe they have caught a young planet forming in the system's dusty disk.

As reported in Astronomy & Astrophysics, the star system CS Cha is 2 to 3 million years old and located about 600 light-years from Earth in the constellation of the Chameleon. The system has 19 years’ worth of observations, which suggested it was surrounded by a dusty disk of debris. And where there’s a dusty disk, there might be a planet.

The team used the SPHERE instrument on the Very Large Telescope to investigate the system and discovered a small companion 32 billion kilometers (20 billion miles) from the stars. The stars themselves are in an inner cavity within the disk that would roughly sit halfway between the orbit of Saturn and Uranus.

The team used the previous observations to gain more insights into the system. The previous observations confirmed that the object is gravitationally bound to the double star, although its exact nature, mass, and how it came to form are unclear. The planet appears to be surrounded by a tiny dusty disk. This is an exciting discovery, but it complicates things. The presence of such a disk has impeded more detailed analysis. The researchers are not even entirely certain it's a giant planet and not a brown dwarf, a type of small failed star.  

"The most exciting part is that the light of the companion is highly polarized," lead author Christian Ginski of Leiden University said in a statement. Such a preference in the direction of polarization usually occurs when light is scattered along the way. We suspect that the companion is surrounded by his own dust disc. The tricky part is that the disc blocks a large part of the light and that is why we can hardly determine the mass of the companion. So it could be a brown dwarf but also a super-Jupiter in his toddler years. The classical planet-forming-models can't help us."

The team hopes to unveil the true nature of this object with a subsequent observation using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. The observatory has already unveiled amazing observations of an infant star system and this one might be next.

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