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Astronomers take photo of giant planets orbiting Sun-like star

The first ever photo of two planets orbiting a Sun-like star 309-light years from the Earth has been captured by astronomers using a ground-based telescope. 

The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile was used to capture the image of the two giant exoplanets orbiting the very young star. 

Astronomers say this image is a snapshot of an environment similar to our Solar System  – but at an earlier stage in its evolution. 

The two gas giants are much larger and much further away from their host star than Jupiter or Saturn are in our Solar System, according to researchers.

The star is incredibly young at just 17 million years old, emerging just 50 million years after the death of the dinosaurs on Earth – our Sun is 4.6 billion years old.

By studying direct images of such a young planetary system early in its development, astronomers hope to get a better picture of how our Solar System might have evolved in its first few million years.

The closest planet to the star in this young system is 14 times more massive than Jupiter and orbits 160 times further from its star than Earth does from the Sun. 

The other planet is six times more massive than Jupiter and orbits 320 times further out than Earth is from the Sun. 

This is the first direct image of a planetary system around a star like our Sun and is called TYC 8998-760-1, according to astronomers. 

Alexander Bohn, a PhD student at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who led the new research said only a tiny fraction of exoplanets have been directly imaged.    

Observations will help scientists understand how the planets around our own sun formed. Too hot to host life, they will also help identify ones most likely to harbour it. 

The larger planet has an estimated surface temperature of about 1,400 degrees Celsius (2,600 degrees Fahrenheit) – and likely has a highly inflated atmosphere. 

Matthew Kenworthy, Associate Professor at Leiden University, said ‘direct observations are important in the search for environments that can support life.’  

Until now only two such systems had been directly seen – both around stars markedly different from our sun.  

By taking different images at different times the researchers – including Dr Steven Rieder at Exeter University – were able to distinguish them from the background stars and show that they were clearly large planets.

They stumbled on the system while searching for young giant planets around stars using the telescope’s SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch) instrument.

The instrument blocks a star’s bright light with a device called a coronagraph – allowing much fainter planets to be seen.

Older planets, like those in the solar system – are too cool for this technique to work. But young planets are hotter – and so glow brighter in infrared light.

By taking several images over the past year – as well as using data going back to 2017 – the researchers confirmed the two planets are part of the star’s system.

Further observations with the future ESO Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) – will enable them to test if they formed at their current location or migrated from elsewhere in the system – which will help explain planetary formation.

It will also help probe the interaction between two young planets in the same system, according to the team behind the discovery.

Bohn said the ELT and other future technology will be able to detect even lower-mass planets around stars similar to the Sun.

He said this ‘marks an important milestone in understanding multi-planet systems, with potential implications for the history of our own solar system.’

In May the VLT spotted a baby planet being born 520 light years away. 

It was the first telescope to directly capture an exoplanet when it imaged a speck of light around a ‘failed’ brown dwarf star.

The findings have been published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. 

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