Scientists Find Youngest Planet Ever Observed

Astronomers have come across the youngest planet ever observed, at just 2 million years old. It's called LkCa 15 b, and it's still in the early stages of forming. Melissa Block talks to Adam Kraus of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy about the discovery.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We suppose a cosmic congratulation is in order. A new planet is being born, some 450 light-years from Earth. Astronomers are calling it LKCA15B. And they say it's the youngest planet ever observed at the budding age of around two million years old.

Adam Kraus of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy was one was one of the scientists who discovered the planet and he joins me now to talk about it. Welcome to the program.

DR. ADAM KRAUS: Thank you.

BLOCK: And I gather this is called a proto-planet, it's still being formed. How did you find it?

KRAUS: So, the primary challenge you face is that the light is coming from a star and from a planet, this is a long path to get to us. It passes through the atmosphere and the motions of air in the atmosphere will tend to smear it out. And then, after the light hits our telescope, then even little tiny imperfections in the telescope can also cause the light to bounce around and smear things out. And what we want to do is remove any distortions in the light so we can identify a faint planet, say, next to a very bright star.

BLOCK: And that's what you were able to do here?

KRAUS: And, yes. So, the technique we use allows us to identify these distortions and to calibrate all those out and to actually subtract them out, so that we're left with the light, like it appeared when it left that star rather than passing through our atmosphere and being distorted and smeared away.

BLOCK: So, am I right that you ended up finding something that was not very bright at all, next to something that was very bright - something very dim that you wouldn't have been able to see otherwise?

KRAUS: Right, right. Without these techniques, then the planet would have been far too faint to observe, considering the resolution and contrast you can normally get just by pointing your telescope at the sky and looking at a star.

BLOCK: And the observatory where you're doing this work is in Hawaii on the top of a volcano, right?

KRAUS: Yes. So, the observatory is Keck Observatory and it's located on top of the Mauna Kea Volcano. It's one of the two big volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii.

BLOCK: What can you tell us about this planet besides the fact that it's the youngest one ever discovered?

KRAUS: So, the most interesting feature about this planet is that it actually appears that we're not just seeing the planet itself, but we're seeing gas and dust around the planet that appears like it might still falling onto the planet itself. And so, I think the most interesting feature is that it appears to have been caught while it's being formed - not necessarily just while it's young.

Based on our observations, it appears that it will continue to be assembled for a while yet into the future. And so, we're actually getting a snapshot of planet formation as it's occurring.

BLOCK: And where is it exactly?

KRAUS: The star that it orbits around is - it's in the constellation of Taurus. And it's in one of the nearest regions where stars form. It's about 450 light-years away. And it's in a region only with a few hundred young stars that are forming and have been forming over the last few million years. And it'll probably continue forming for another few million years.

BLOCK: What kind of feeling is that for you, as an astronomer, to have found this planet?

KRAUS: Well, my first reaction to it was to say this is great. We'll finally get answers to some of the questions that we've been arguing over for a while - when do planets form, do they form right after their star, or do they take a few million years in order to gradually assemble themselves. We also want to know where to planets form. Do they form right next to the star or do they form sort of in the outskirts of the planetary system that is in the process of forming?

And so, it was a really great feeling to look at this and realize that we're actually seeing this process in action. And so, we're getting direct evidence for how these things really form and how this process operates.

BLOCK: Well, Adam Kraus, thanks for telling us about your discovery. Appreciate it.

KRAUS: Great, thank you.

BLOCK: Adam Kraus is with the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy. He was one of the scientists who discovered the newly forming planet.

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