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Baby planet discovered by Spitzer

Scientists at NASA discovered a baby planet — the youngest planet in the universe, using the Spitzer telescope. “These early results show Spitzer will dramatically expand our understanding of how stars and planets form, which ultimately helps us understand our origins,” said Dr. Michael Werner, Spitzer project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., which manages the mission.

Planet-forming, or “protoplanetary,” discs are a natural phase in a star’s life. A star is born inside a dense envelope of gas and dust. Within this envelope, and circling the star, is a flat, dusty disc, where planets are born.

Up until now, the youngest planet discovered has been billions of years old. However, the use of a new telescope has enabled NASA scientists to discover a much younger planet. The “baby planet” is about a million years old, but in cosmic terms it is considered to be a mere infant. The discovery was made with NASA’a infrared Spitzer space telescope, which is able to discern entities in space through the cosmic dust clouds that would normally obscure the view of other telescopes.

According to NASA, Spitzer surveyed a group of young stars and found intriguing evidence that one of them may have the youngest planet detected. The observatory found a clearing in the disc around the star CoKu Tau 4. This might indicate an orbiting planet swept away the disc material, like a vacuum leaving a cleared trail on a dirty carpet.

The new findings reveal the structure of the gap more clearly than ever before. Because CoKu Tau 4 is about one million years old, the possible planet would be even younger. As a comparison, Earth is approximately 4.5-billion years old.

The Spitzer telescope was launched by NASA last summer as a successor to the famed Hubble telescope. Since its deployment, NASA scientists have been extremely pleased with its advanced capabilities. Spitzer’s infrared spectrograph instrument, which breaks apart infrared light to see the signatures of various chemicals, was used to observe the organic ices and the clearing within CoKu Tau 4’s disc.