Skip to main content

Hubble observes a giant planet growing as it gobbles up dust and gas

This illustration of the newly forming exoplanet PDS 70b shows how material may be falling onto the giant world as it builds up mass. By employing Hubble’s ultraviolet light (UV) sensitivity, researchers got a unique look at radiation from extremely hot gas falling onto the planet, allowing them to directly measure the planet’s mass growth rate for the first time.
This illustration of the newly forming exoplanet PDS 70b shows how material may be falling onto the giant world as it builds up mass. By employing Hubble’s ultraviolet light (UV) sensitivity, researchers got a unique look at radiation from extremely hot gas falling onto the planet, allowing them to directly measure the planet’s mass growth rate for the first time. SCIENCE: McDonald Observatory–University of Texas, Yifan Zhou (UT) ILLUSTRATION: NASA, ESA, STScI, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

Planets come in many compositions and sizes, and they can grow considerably larger than even the gas giants in our solar system. One such giant planet, PDS 70b, is two to three times the radius of Jupiter, and around three times its mass as well. Now, Hubble has made a rare direct observation of this planet to learn about how such large planets grow.

The planet’s host star, orange dwarf PDS 70, is located 370 light-years away in the constellation of Centaurus, and this is one of the relatively few systems in which a planet has been directly imaged. Most of the time, exoplanets are detected by seeing how light coming from their host star changes, from which the presence of planets can be inferred. But occasionally, a planet is big enough to be seen directly, like the chunky PDS 70b.

Not only could Hubble observe the planet, but it could also see how fast it grows by observing radiation from hot gas which is falling toward it. The planet is moving through a cloud of dust and gas around the star, and it gathers up material as it travels. The researchers believe that although the planet is still growing, it will soon come to the end of its growth phase.

“We just don’t know very much about how giant planets grow,” said one of the researchers, Brendan Bowler of the University of Texas at Austin, in a statement. “This planetary system gives us the first opportunity to witness material falling onto a planet. Our results open up a new area for this research.”

“This system is so exciting because we can witness the formation of a planet,” said another researcher, Yifan Zhou, also of the University of Texas at Austin. “This is the youngest bona fide planet Hubble has ever directly imaged.”

Learning about how this planet is growing can also teach us about how planets like Jupiter formed in our solar system. It too may have grown by scooping up material from a disk of dust and gas.

“Thirty-one years after launch, we’re still finding new ways to use Hubble,” Bowler said. “Yifan’s observing strategy and post-processing technique will open new windows into studying similar systems, or even the same system, repeatedly with Hubble. With future observations, we could potentially discover when the majority of the gas and dust falls onto their planets and if it does so at a constant rate.”

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Hubble captures the dramatic jets of a baby star
FS Tau is a multi-star system made up of FS Tau A, the bright star-like object near the middle of the image, and FS Tau B (Haro 6-5B), the bright object to the far right that is partially obscured by a dark, vertical lane of dust. The young objects are surrounded by softly illuminated gas and dust of this stellar nursery. The system is only about 2.8 million years old, very young for a star system. Our Sun, by contrast, is about 4.6 billion years old.

A new image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the drama that unfolds as a new star is born. Within a swirling cloud of dust and gas, a newly formed star is giving off powerful jets that blast away material and cut through the nearby dust of the surrounding nebula to create this stunning vista.

The image shows a system called FS Tau, located 450 light-years away in a region called Taurus-Auriga. Within this region are many stellar nurseries with new stars forming, making it a favorite target for astronomers studying star formation. But this particular system stands out for the dramatic nature of its newborn star, which has formed an epic structure called a Herbig-Haro object.

Read more
Hubble images the spooky Spider Galaxy
This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the irregular galaxy UGC 5829.

This week's image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows an irregular galaxy, the spindly arms and clawed shape of which has led to it being named the Spider Galaxy. Located 30 million light-years away, the galaxy also known as UGC 5829 is an irregular galaxy that lacks the clear, orderly arms seen in spiral galaxies like the Milky Way.

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the irregular galaxy UGC 5829. ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Tully, M. Messa

Read more
See planets being born in new images from the Very Large Telescope
This composite image shows the MWC 758 planet-forming disc, located about 500 light-years away in the Taurus region, as seen with two different facilities. The yellow colour represents infrared observations obtained with the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). The blue regions on the other hand correspond to observations performed with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

Astronomers have used the Very Large Telescope to peer into the disks of matter from which exoplanets form, looking at more than 80 young stars to see which may have planets forming around them. This is the largest study to date on these planet-forming disks, which are often found within the same huge clouds of dust and gas that stars form within.

A total of 86 young stars were studied in three regions known to host star formation: Taurus and Chamaeleon I, each located around 600 light-years away, and Orion, a famous stellar nursery located around 1,600 light-years away. The researchers took images of the disks around the stars, looking at their structures for clues about how different types of planets can form.

Read more