Scientists have long debated the formation of planets in our solar system. While Earth was formed thanks to gravity pulling dust and matter together over billions of years, the birth of mega-planets like Jupiter and Saturn still remains a mystery. The Hubble Telescope, now, has pointed to a Jupiter-like planet that could hold the answer to the formation of giant planets in our universe.
Described by scientists as “still in its womb”, this enormous planet, about nine times the mass of Jupiter, is at a remarkably early stage of formation. Hubble has shed light on the “intense and violent process” at the center of this planet’s formation surrounding a young star that’s estimated to be around 2 million years old.
The planet is taking shape by a process called disk instability, where a massive disk around a star cools, and gravity causes it to rapidly break up into one or more planet-mass fragments.
Dubbed AB Aurigae b, the Jupiter-like planet orbits its host star at a whopping distance of 8.6 billion miles over two times farther than Pluto is from our Sun.
Researchers said that at that distance it would take a very long time, if ever, for a Jupiter-sized planet to form by core accretion. This leads researchers to conclude that the disk instability has enabled this planet to form at such a great distance.
Using the Subaru Telescope located near the summit of an inactive Hawaiian volcano combined with observations of the Hubble, scientists found this planet embedded in an expansive disk of gas and dust, bearing the material that forms planets at a distance of 508 light-years – the distance light travels in a year from Earth.
Planets in the process of formation – called protoplanets – have been observed around only one other star. “Nature is clever; it can produce planets in a range of different ways,” Thayne Currie of the Subaru Telescope and Eureka Scientific, lead researcher on the study said.
A major help came from nature as the vast disk of dust and gas swirling around the star AB Aurigae is tilted nearly face-on to our view from Earth. “Interpreting this system is extremely challenging. This is one of the reasons why we needed Hubble for this project a clean image to better separate the light from the disk and any planet,” Currie added.
“In the end, gravity is all that counts, as the leftovers of the star-formation process will end up being pulled together by gravity to form planets, one way or the other,” ” Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington said.
Understanding the early days of the formation of Jupiter-like planets provides astronomers with more context into the history of our own solar system.