Oh baby! Astronomers hope to glimpse giant newborn planet’s rings and moons during rare transit

Science | AAAS | 1/17/2018 | Staff
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The exoplanet β Pictoris b plows a path through its star's disk of gas and dust in this illustration.

Astronomers are staring at a nearby star in hopes of seeing a giant baby of a planet pass across its face, perhaps accompanied by dust clouds, rings, or newborn moons. Last week, the newest and tiniest telescope joined the vigil, when the French-built PicSat rode into orbit on an Indian rocket. It will be able to continuously monitor the star, β Pictoris, until chances of seeing the once-in-20-year transit event diminish in a few months' time. "We can't miss this. We would be kicking ourselves," says astronomer Matthew Kenworthy of Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Astronomers - Thousands - Exoplanets - Face - Stars

Astronomers have seen thousands of exoplanets transit, or cross the face of their stars, eclipsing a fraction of their light. But β Pictoris, a bright star just 63 light-years away, is special. It is a natural laboratory for how solar systems form because it is only 24 million years old—the "equivalent of a baby of a few weeks," says Sylvestre Lacour of the Paris Observatory.

In 1984, astronomers observed a disk of gas and dust around it, the first protoplanetary disk to be seen. The disk, viewed nearly edge on, was warped and had gaps, a sign of planets in the making. But it wasn't until 2009 that researchers spied the faint glow of a hot, young giant planet, 10 times the mass of Jupiter, in a roughly 20-year orbit. Now dubbed β Pictoris b, it is one of only a handful of exoplanets to be imaged directly.

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Discovery - β - Pictoris - Light

The discovery could explain why, in 1981, β Pictoris's light dimmed erratically...
(Excerpt) Read more at: Science | AAAS
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