Astronomers conduct first search for forming planets with new space telescope | Science & Technology

Planets form in disks of dust and gas called protoplanetary disks that whirl around a central protostar during its final assembly.

Although several dozens of such disks have been imaged, just two planets have been caught in the act of forming so far. Now, astronomers are aiming the powerful instruments aboard the James Webb Space Telescope at protoplanetary disks to try to find early clues about the ways in which planets form, and how these planets influence their natal disk.

A trio of studies led by the University of Michigan, University of Arizona and University of Victoria combined JWST’s images with prior observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA, in Chile. Based on the ancillary observations, the team used JWST to observe protoplanetary disks HL Tau, SAO 206462 and MWC 758 in hopes of detecting any planets that might be forming.

In the papers, published in The Astronomical Journal, the researchers pieced together previously unseen interactions between the planet-forming disk and the envelope of gas and dust surrounding the young stars at the center of the protoplanetary disks.

To catch a planet

The U-M study, led by U-M astronomer Gabriele Cugno, aimed JWST at a disk surrounding a protostar called SAO 206462. There, the researchers potentially found a planet candidate in the act of forming in a protoplanetary disk — but it wasn’t the planet they expected to find.

“Several simulations suggest that the planet should be within the disk, massive, large, hot, and bright. But we didn’t find it. This means that either the planet is much colder than we think, or it may be obscured by some material that prevents us from seeing it,” said Cugno, also a co-author on all three papers. “What we have found is a different planet candidate, but we cannot tell with 100% certainty whether it’s a planet or a faint background star or galaxy contaminating our image. Future observations will help us understand exactly what we…

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