Scientists rarely manage to detect newly born planets – especially if they are hundreds or thousands of light-years away from us.
The fact is that planets form in thick clouds of dust and gas, which are called protoplanetary disks. They revolve around the star, but it is difficult to see something through all the debris. Because of this, scientists have to rely on other clues to the presence of protoplanets, but most of these clues are circumstantial at best.
But Feng Long, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and her colleagues have discovered a new key to confirming the existence of protoplanets: debris at Lagrange points.
Long came up with this idea when she was analyzing data from the Chilean observatory ALMA. She noticed a dusty ring in the protoplanetary disk of LkCa 15 , around which two bright clumps of matter revolved. They are separated by about 120 degrees, and Long believes that there must be a newborn planet between them. It should look something like this:
Long argues that such an angle is not accidental, but mathematically important. It may indicate the existence of a young planet between two points. Once the matter is frozen in place, it means that it is at the Lagrange point, where the gravity of two celestial bodies is balanced – in this case, a star and a new planet, the location of which can be calculated even if it itself is not visible.
Unfortunately, proving this hypothesis with the current state of astronomical technology is impossible. But if we can prove it in the future by looking into one of these dust blobs, it could make it easier to find new planets — including those capable of supporting life. For now, we have to rely on James Webb and other telescopes to look ever deeper into space.
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