Astronomers have uncovered new evidence of the formation of a small planet

Planet discovered in LkCa 15 . system

Artist’s illustration of a small Saturn-like planet discovered in the LkCa 15 system. The planet is located within dense rings of dust and gas surrounding a bright yellow star. The material accumulates in a clump and in an arc shape, about 60 degrees from the planet. Note: This illustration is not to scale. Credit: M. Weiss/The Astrophysical Center | Harvard and Smithsonian

Astronomers have developed a new technique for identifying minor planets hidden in protoplanetary disks.

According to astronomers and astrophysicists, planets are born in protoplanetary disks – rings of dust and gas that surround newborn stars. Although hundreds of such discs have been discovered throughout the universe, observations of actual planetary birth and formation have proven difficult in these environments.

Astronomers at the Astrophysics Center | Harvard and Smithsonian ([{” attribute=””>CfA) have now developed a new way to detect these elusive newborn planets. With it, they have uncovered “smoking gun” evidence of a small

“In the past few years, we’ve seen many structures pop up on disks that we think are caused by a planet’s presence, but it could be caused by something else, too,” Long says. “We need new techniques to look at and support that a planet is there.”

Long decided to re-examine a protoplanetary disk known as LkCa 15 for her study. Located about 518 light years away, the disk sits in the Taurus constellation on the sky. Previously, researchers reported evidence for planet formation in the disk using observations with the ALMA Observatory.

After diving into new high-resolution

To figure out what was causing the buildup of material, Long examined the scenario with computer models. She discovered that their size and locations matched the model for the presence of a planet.

“This arc and clump are separated by about 120 degrees,” Long says. “That degree of separation doesn’t just happen — it’s important mathematically.”

Long points to positions in space known as Lagrange points, where two bodies in motion — such as a star and orbiting planet — produce enhanced regions of attraction around them where matter may accumulate.

“We’re seeing that this material is not just floating around freely, it’s stable and has a preference where it wants to be located based on physics and the objects involved,” Long explains.

In this case, the arc and clump of material Long detected are located at the L4 and L5 Lagrange points. Hidden 60 degrees between them is a small planet causing the accumulation of dust at points L4 and L5.

According to the results, the planet is roughly the size of Neptune or Saturn, and around one to three million years old. (That’s relatively young when it comes to planets.)

Due to technology constraints, directly imaging the small, newborn planet may not be possible any time soon. However, Long believes further ALMA observations of LkCa 15 can provide additional evidence supporting her planetary discovery.

She also hopes her new approach for detecting planets — with material preferentially accumulating at Lagrange points — will be utilized in the future by astronomers.

“I do hope this method can be widely adopted in the future,” she says. “The only caveat is that this requires very deep data as the signal is weak.”

Long recently completed her postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Astrophysics and will join the University of Arizona as a

This study involved high-resolution ALMA observations taken with Band 6 (1.3mm) and Band 7 (0.88mm) receivers.

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