Birth of a Planet: First Pictures of Youngest Planet Yet Seen

First-ever images of planet in the making

Oct. 20, 2011 — -- Far away, in the winter constellation Taurus the Bull, a star has been born -- and scientists now say they have photographed what they believe is a new planet in orbit around it, perhaps the youngest ever seen in the process of forming.

The find was made by Adam Kraus, a young astronomer at the University of Hawaii, working with Michael Ireland of Australia's Macquarie University. They have labeled the planet LkCa 15 b.

"LkCa 15 b is the youngest planet ever found, about five times younger than the previous record holder," Kraus said in a statement announcing the discovery. "In the past, you couldn't measure this kind of phenomenon because it's happening so close to the star. But, for the first time, we've been able to directly measure the planet itself as well as the dusty matter around it."

"If you could get really close to the planet, you would actually see that it's a spherical ball of gas like Jupiter or Saturn," he added in an email to ABC News. "Our observations seem to show that it's pretty far long in the formation process -- this isn't just a cloud, it should have a recognizable surface and everything."

It is 450 light years from Earth, and, like the young Earth as it took shape more than 4.6 billion years ago, it is probably not a very pleasant place right now. It is about 11 times farther from the star it circles (11 AU, or Astronomical Units) than we are from our sun.

It is giant, probably about six times as large as Jupiter, and Kraus said it's about 2 million years old. It's a baby.

"At the age we want to study, planets actually are very warm," said Kraus. "Most of the light isn't reflected starlight, but is the glow from the planet itself. To our eye, the planet would probably glow a deep red."

It's also a model of how scientists believe solar systems -- like ours -- form, congealing from vast clouds of debris in space. If you look at the two-part image they provided (click HERE to enlarge), you'll see on the left what Kraus and Ireland first saw from the Keck Observatory on Hawaii's Mauna Kea -- a ring of dust circling the unseen young star. On the right, you see a heavily-processed closeup of the planet. The star is marked in the image, but it was blocked so the planet, with dust still settling around it, would be visible.

The two researchers will publish details of their find in The Astrophysical Journal (click HERE for the abstract), and then other astronomers will look to see if they can tease out more details.

"We realized we had uncovered a super Jupiter-sized gas planet, but that we could also measure the dust and gas surrounding it," said Kraus. "We'd found a planet at its very beginning."