An 'Infant' Planet Could Shed Light on the Formation of the Solar System

Observed in Hawaii, it's the same age as the Hawaiian islands themselves.
Chris Young
An image of the planet 2M0437.The University of Hawaii at Manoa

An international team of astronomers discovered one of the youngest planets to have ever been observed, a press statement from The University of Hawaii at Manoa reveals. The planet is so young that its surface is still searingly hot from the energy released during its formation.

Discoveries such as this one help astronomers to better understand the formation of planets and the early evolution of our Solar System. The researchers detailed their findings on the planet, called 2M0437b, in a paper published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

2M0437b formed with its host star only a few million years ago, which on the cosmic scale, means it's an infant planet — as a point of reference, the Earth is estimated to be approximately 4.54 billion years old. Another point that sets it apart from thousands of other planets detected by astronomers is the fact that it can be directly observed via a telescope. The majority of planets are detected via the shadows they cast when orbiting their sun.

2M0437b is part of an 'elite list of planets'

2M0437b was first observed in 2018 by the Subaru Telescope on Maunakea. Since that time researchers at the University of Hawaii have been closely studying the planet with several telescopes. "This serendipitous discovery adds to an elite list of planets that we can directly observe with our telescopes," explained lead author Eric Gaidos, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "By analyzing the light from this planet we can say something about its composition, and perhaps where and how it formed in a long-vanished disk of gas and dust around its host star." 

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The researchers behind the discovery say that the planet is several times larger than Jupiter and that it formed roughly around the same time that the main Hawaiian Islands emerged from the ocean. The planet and its parent star are located in a stellar "nursery" called the Taurus Cloud. Part of the reason it is relatively easy to observe directly is due to the fact that it has an orbit that is a hundred times wider than that of the Earth from the Sun. The researchers say that new observations will soon be made with NASA's Hubble telescope as well as the space agency's much-delayed but soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope, meaning they will gain new insight into the newly formed planet and, by extension, the formation of our own solar system.