A young star 350 light-years away may be in the process of birthing a planet, though it could just be gas.
Scientists have always had theories as to how planets are formed, but soon they will finally be able to see first hand exactly how it happens.
About 350 light-years away from us a young star, T Chamaeleontis, may be feeling a contraction or two as a planet forms in the midst of the star's protoplanetary disc, a huge band of dust, gas, and debris that orbits the star. As the material in the disc begins to build up in spots, increased gravity draws even more material towards these clumps of space stuff until all the material in the disc is locked up in planets, comets, and asteroids.
John Olofsson of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Hamburg (and one of the lead authors of papers describing what's going on with the star) said of the work, "Earlier studies had shown that [T Chamaeleontis] was an excellent target for studying how planetary systems form, but this star is quite distant and the full power of the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) was needed to resolve very fine details and see what is going on in the dust disc."
When the 4 component telescopes of the Very Large Telescope (scientists are amazingly uncreative namers) were aimed at the star and it's protoplanetary disc, it was discovered that there was a gap between an inner and outer portion of the disc, hinting that something has been digging its way through, collecting the matter in that orbit.
"For us the gap in the dust disc around T Cha was a smoking gun," said Nuria Huélamo of the Centro de Astrobiología, "and we asked ourselves: could we be witnessing a companion digging a gap inside its protoplanetary disc?"
Further viewing of the star with special optics attached to the telescope revealed that there is an object much smaller and dimmer than T Chamaeleontis orbiting it about as far from it as Jupiter is from the Sun. Further analysis and viewing may tell us whether it is a planet or a brown dwarf, a big wad of gas that wishes it could be a star. Either way, science is awesome.