Three Baby Planets Discovered with the Help of ALMA

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Thousands of exoplanets have been detected since 1990s, but only now, thanks to a new technique, two teams of scientists discovered three infant planets orbiting a newborn star. This finding seems to confirm our theories about the formation of planets.

How to find an exoplanet

When trying to find an exoplanet, the scientists look at either the gravitational effect it has on its parent star or the dimming effect it creates while it moves in front of a star. However, none of these could possibly help us detect a protoplanet, since newborn stars are surrounded by disks made of dust, gas and rocks. In order to discover an infant planet, a new technique had to be developed.

Three infant planets detected

While we are unable to see much through the protoplanetary disks, we can take a look at the disks themselves and examine the way they behave. Using ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) in Chile, two independently working teams of astronomers discovered three newborn planets orbiting a young, four million years old star named HD 163296, which is twice the size of the Sun.

New successful technique

With the help of the Doppler shift, the scientists managed to locate the planets by examining the way carbon monoxide flows within the disks. Instead of predictable patterns of gas, they observed a dramatic shift in the wavelengths of carbon monoxide in three regions, which can be explained by the existence of three massive protoplanets.

In the past, thanks to ALMA, the astronomers were able to detect large gaps within planet-forming disks, which they believed were the result of the creation of new planets. Unfortunately, the scientists couldn’t get any specific details of these theoretical objects. With the new technique not only we can do that, but we might further examine the protoplanetary disks in order to learn more about the process of the formation of planets.

As our second lead editor, Anna C. Mackinno provides guidance on the stories Great Lakes Ledger reporters cover. She has been instrumental in making sure the content on the site is clear and accurate for our readers. If you see a particularly clever title, you can likely thank Anna. Anna received a BA and and MA from Fordham University.