More than 5,000 planets exist beyond our solar system, according to NASA, and this week astronomers announced they may have discovered the youngest one yet.
Scientists using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile report in the journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters the first-ever detection of gas in a circumplanetary disk, collections of dust and debris found around young planets.
The finding, according to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which partners with the ALMA site, suggests the presence of a very young exoplanet – the term for a planet found outside our solar system.
While studying AS 209 – a young star 395 light-years from Earth in the constellation Ophiuchus, which graces skies in the summer – astronomers observed “a blob of emitted light in the middle of an otherwise empty gap in the gas surrounding the star,” according to an NRAO news article on the findings Tuesday.
That led to the detection of the circumplanetary disk surrounding a potential Jupiter-mass planet, the radio astronomy observatory’s article said.
Researchers are closely watching the planet, which is 18.59 billion miles from the host star. This distance “challenges currently accepted theories of planet formation,” the observatory said. “And if the host star’s estimated age of just 1.6 million years holds true, this exoplanet could be one of the youngest ever detected.”
The new observations of gas in a circumplanetary disk at AS 209 may shed further light on the development of planetary atmospheres and the processes by which moons are formed, the observatory said.
The star system has also been of interest to scientists for more than five years because of the presence of seven nested rings, which researchers believe to be associated with planet formation.
Further research is needed, scientists said, and astrophysicists hope upcoming observations with the James Webb Space Telescope will confirm the planet’s presence.
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“The best way to study planet formation is to observe planets while they’re forming. We are living in a very exciting time when this happens thanks to powerful telescopes, such as ALMA and JWST,” said Jaehan Bae, a professor of astronomy at the University of Florida and lead author of the paper, in the article.
The first images from the $10 billion telescope – launched Dec. 25, 2021 – went viral throughout July when they were released to the public. The scientific marvel, a joint project involving NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency, has traveled 1 million miles through space.
Natalie Neysa Alund covers trending news for USA TODAY. Reach her de ella at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her de ella on Twitter @nataliealund.