With the billions and billions of stars, planets, galaxies and more that make up the universe, there is almost always a new star or planet being born, going supernova, or evolving into a different celestial body. Though these events take place all the time, it is extremely rare for them to happen close enough for astronomical telescopes to get a good look.
One such occurrence has just taken place. An object that astronomers are calling LkCa 15 b has just been photographed for the first time, and it appears to be a “protoplanet” which is a newly forming planet that is still extremely hot and has massive amounts of gas and dust floating around it in a wide ring. The gas and dust is still being pulled into the planet, which will cool over time as more mass is added.
LkCa 15 b is the youngest planet ever found, and by a pretty wide margin, as it is roughly 5 times younger than the previous record holder. The planet is forming into a gas giant similar to Jupiter, and because of its age astronomers are able to use telescopes to measure both the inner core of the planet and the surrounding gas in a way that has never been possible in the past.
Astronomers Adam Kraus and Michael Ireland discovered the planet using Hawaii’s Keck telescope array. These 10-meter telescopes have incredible power, but it was actually optical sleight of hand that allowed the scientists to get a quality image of the protoplanet. The Keck telescopes have a deformable mirror that allows for rapid corrections in the event of atmospheric distortions. The telescopic sleight of hand used is called aperture mask interferometry, which involves placing a mask with holes in the path of the collected light in order to manipulate light waves.
As I’m sure you’ve all read our Telescopes FAQ, you’ll know that the aperture is one of the most important parts of a telescope. It is the size of the main optical lens, and it is primarily this size that determines the amount of light gathered, which in turn determines how bright and clear the image is. By manipulating the light through the Keck telescopes, Kraus and Ireland were able to remove light sources that would distort the image of LkCa 15 b to get a clear image of the planet during its formation.
Though interferometry has been around since the 1800s, it has only been able to view nearby stars for about the last 7 years, and by using the technique with the biggest telescopes on the planet far greater detail has been possible, leading to numerous discoveries, including this young planet.
Similar techniques to interferometry are used by amateur astronomers all the time. Some telescope accessories, such as the Celestron Telescope Moon Filter, alter certain light frequencies to allow for a better view. The Moon Filter dims the bright light from the moon to provide greater contrast, giving astronomers greater detail.
Research into this new planet may lead to greater understanding of how planets come into being. While it is too early to tell, the area around LkCa 15 b may turn into a new solar system, with multiple planets forming from the massive amount of gas and dust in the area. It appears at present to all be pulling toward the same spot for a single gas giant, but if enough dust collects far enough away from LkCa 15 b a second planet or even third planet may form. It’s also possible at present that other celestial bodies may become moons for LkCa 15 b. More study is planned over the coming years to train massive telescopes around the world on the new planet to see what happens in this baby solar system.