This is truly astonishing: an “amateur” astronomer in New Zealand, Rolf Olsen, has for the first time actually been able to get a direct photograph of the disk of swirling material forming a planet around a nearby star!
OK, first, the picture:
This may not look like much at first glance, but that’s often true of amazing pictures. When you realize what you’re actually seeing…
This is a picture of Beta Pictoris (or just β Pic to those in the know), a young star just over 60 light years away. The light from the star itself has been subtracted away (more on that in a sec), and the two big crosshair streaks of light are called diffraction spikes — they’re caused by light inside the telescope and aren’t real. But the fuzz you see above and below the star is real, part of the disk of material forming planets right before our eyes! The dashed line was added by Rolf to show the orientation of the disk.
In the 1980s, infrared images of β Pic revealed that it’s surrounded by a flat dust disk almost exactly edge-on to us. We see that disk as a broad line crossing the star itself, like in the false-color image here from the Las Campanas observatory.
β Pic became a very popular object, with many telescopes pointed at it to try to determine the nature of this material. This was the first time we had ever directly seen the disk of protoplanetary material. We now know that not only is that disk actively forming planets, there is a planet orbiting the star inside that disk, and we’ve even seen it move!
Astronomers may have, for the first time, directly imaged a planet still in the process of formation, gathering material from a debris disk surrounding its parent star.
First: Holy Haleakala!
Second: note the use of the word "may". It looks to me like it’s real, though.
Third: Oh, you want to see the picture? Well, let me do the honors:
The alleged planet, called LkCa 15b, is the blue spot in the image. The red shows material which is most likely accumulating onto the planet itself, building up its mass. The central star isn’t seen in this image because its light has been blocked out so the fainter material near it can be seen. The star’s position is marked by the star icon.
The image is in the infrared, taken using the monster Keck telescope in Hawaii. What’s shown in red is light at a wavelength of 3.7 microns (roughly five times what the human eye can see) and blue is from 2.1 microns, about three times what we can see. Warm material around the star is best seen at these wavelengths. If this is a planet, it’s at a temperature of about 500 – 1000 K (440° – 1340° F), and has a mass roughly six times that of Jupiter, or about 2000 times the Earth’s mass.
So is it a planet? Read More