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Astronomers Spy a Nursery of Baby Exoplanets

November 30, 2015

Figure 1. Image of HD 100546 obtained with the Gemini Planet Imager at near-infrared wavelengths (1.6 microns). The cross shows the position of the star, the green hatched lines show the region interior to which GPI's coronagraph blocks our view of the system. HD 100546 b appears as a bright point source sitting on a finger of disk emission.
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Figure 2. Same image with a more relaxed color scale stretch revealing the candidate HD 100546 c.
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    Gemini Observatory, Hilo, HI
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Today, at the Extreme Solar Systems conference in Waikoloa, Hawai‘i, astronomers announced the discovery of at least one, probably two, baby Jupiter-like planets still actively forming and surrounded by their natal clouds of gas and dust. The Gemini Planet Imager, at the Gemini South telescope in Chile, provided the key data for this discovery. The system resembles an infant version of the first directly imaged planetary system, discovered using the Gemini North telescope on Maunakea.

Astronomers report that this system, surrounding a star known as HD 100546, is giving us a glimpse back in time to see what other, more developed exoplanet systems looked like in their adolescence. The star is remarkably similar to HR 8799, the first multiple planet system directly imaged and discovered in 2008, but HR 8799's planets are fully formed. "Now, seven years later, we can for the first time see what this planetary system may have looked like while the planets were just coming into existence," said principal investigator Thayne Currie, astronomer at the Subaru Observatory.

The team expects many more discoveries as they probe the environs of HD 100546 more deeply. According to University of Toronto graduate student Ryan Cloutier, systems like this one, containing multiple forming giant planets, have extensive spiral arms in their disks. "For HD 100546, its spiral arms may suggest the presence of additional planets," says Cloutier. "In fact, one of the observed protoplanets might instead be a hotspot within the disk or a signpost of an unseen protoplanet."

The unique set of data for this research, including high-contrast direct imaging, integral-field spectroscopy, and polarimetry, "really brought this system into focus -- it's remarkably powerful," said co-investigator Carol Grady from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

GPI is now in its second year of regular observations at the Gemini South telescope, and in addition to general observations for the astronomical community, like those that produced this result, the ambitious Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey (GPIES) has over a year of observations completed [].

The preprint of Currie et al. paper can be found here.