This ominous image shows the birth of a planet

The spiral arms of gas and dust are signs of a baby planet being born.
This image shows the disc around the young AB Aurigae star, where ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has spotted signs of planet birth.
This image shows the disc around the young AB Aurigae star, where ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has spotted signs of planet birth. ESO/Boccaletti et al.

520 light-years away from Earth, a baby planet is born. While thousands of exoplanets have been identified so far, researchers at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, or VLT, in Chile, have captured the birth of a planet for the very first time. Nestled in a thick disc of dust and gas surrounding a young star named AB Aurigae, a fiery spiral twists around the planet’s site of birth.

The rose-like spirals, which often herald the birth of baby planets, signify how the young objects disrupt the gas, causing waves as if it were a boat on a lake. The dandelion yellow twist region near the spiral’s center lies at the same distance from the star as Neptune from the Sun, or around 2.8 billion miles. Altogether, the twist, described as a spiral arm in a study published Wednesday in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics detailing the image and its discovery, is caused directly by the formation of this young planet.

“The twist is expected from some theoretical models of planet formation,” study co-author Anne Dutrey of the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux (LAB) in France explained in an ESO press release. “It corresponds to the connection of two spirals—one winding inwards of the planet’s orbit, the other expanding outwards—which join at the planet location.” The spirals allow gas and dust to accumulate on the growing planet.

Planets form from grains of dust smaller than the width of a human hair, emerging from expansive, donut-shaped disks of gas and dust that float around young stars, according to NASA. Gravity and other forces smash and fuse the materials within the dust, and they accumulate and grow like snowballs. Over millions of years, these snowballs transform into hard pebbles, then mile-wide rocks. Billions of years later, you’ll have an infant planet on your hands.

This mesmerizing image is the deepest photograph ever taken of the AB Aurigae, or The Charioteer constellation. Observations of this constellation were first made a few years ago with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), but only this year did Anthony Boccaletti and a team of astronomers from France, Taiwan, the United States, and Belgium collaborate to capture the clearest image of the area to date by turning the VLT in Chile toward the young star.

European Southern Observatory is in the midst of constructing the Extremely Large Telescope with a 39-meter-wide main mirror, the largest of its kind, which will provide an increasingly intimate glimpse into deep space. With the goal of becoming operational in 2025, the new instrument could discern small dust grains and other materials from planet-bearing discs like this one, which will be crucial in a more nuanced understanding how planets are born. “We should be able to see directly and more precisely how the dynamics of the gas contributes to the formation of planets,” Boccaletti said in the release.