Saturday, October 22, 2011

Captain Planet Is Not The Father

A team of scientists from Australia and the United States have found a new, bouncing baby planet, using the Keck telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. (NOTE: Do not try to bounce a planet at home.) The planet is estimated as being no older than 50,000-100,000 years old, the youngest planet yet observed. The planet, dubbed LkCa 15b, is about six times the size of Jupiter and a little closer to its sun- itself only about 2 million years old- than Uranus is to ours. You obviously are not going to see it from your lawn, but if you did, you'd see it as a deep red, almost infrared, due to the heat from the planet's ongoing formation.

Why is this important?

Again, it's the youngest planet yet seen, a planet still in formation. There is a lot science doesn't yet know about planet formation; a lot of what we go on concerning planets is still just educated guessing. (Another example of planetary educated guessing: what exactly the center of the Earth looks like. You've heard mantle, outer core, inner core, but do you really think anyone's been down there to have a look?)

What led the astronomers to this particular find was the fact that a debris cloud surrounding a star, had a big gap in it. When a planet forms, what's thought to happen is that the debris cloud starts exerting enough gravity on itself to pull itself together and form a big mass. The mass, creating an orbit, collects more debris as it goes. You can actually form multiple planets from the same cloud, but whether that's happening here is going to require further observation, alongside the determination of orbit path. Astronomers have seen the big debris cloud, they've seen the final result, but this is the first time they've seen the process from A to B.

Since the actual photo leaves a bit to the non-scientist's imagination, pretty much every story on the subject includes an artist's rendering, shown here on its own.

Now to go look for any other gaps in debris clouds.

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