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For the first time ever, researchers were able to spot the formation of a planetary system. A research paper, published in Nature, suggests that the detected objects are newborn planets, currently being pieced together by enormously hot dust and gas. By means of images of the system captured between 2009 to 2015 the group of astronomers was able to notice two protoplanets small objects that go on to form planets together with a potential third, orbiting a star LkCa 15 in an elliptical orbit, as it is estimated of planets.

Image Credit: Artist's illustration of planets developing in a transition disk like LkCa 15. The planets inside the disk clearing sweep up material that would have else fallen onto the star, NASA/JPL-Caltech

Spotting planets forming is quite a challenging task. Newborn stellar systems are generally isolated in a cloud of dust that blocks our view, making usual observing methods unsuitable. The team of astronomers consequently had to come up with a different method to study the system. Newly formed stars yield large disks of material from which planets form. As developing planets move over this protoplanetary disk, they generate gaps in the swirling debris, which researchers can detect using infrared light. Plentiful protoplanet candidates were detected this way. For this recent discovery the team pooled observations in infrared from the Large Binocular Telescope, with hydrogen-alpha examination by the Magellan Telescope.

The gap around the parent star LkCa 15 was first detected in 2011, which presented the potential for the star to have at least one exoplanet. For this newest study, astronomers were able to spot hot gas (9,700°C [17,500 °F]) sinking onto the closer planet LkCa 15b. Examining the data from the system, researchers realized there were other discharges in the gap: One signal was acknowledged as a second planet after being observed numerous times. A third discharge is supposed to be another planet but is yet to be confirmed. This finding and the success of this method offers new opportunities to study how new planets interrelate with the disk of material around the star and how planetary systems form.

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