There’s a taste of the sublime in the photograph of this extrasolar worldby Philip Ball / July 3, 2018 / Leave a comment
Just occasionally, the astronomical sciences come up with sights that ought to awaken even in the most dulled sensibility a hint of Edmund Burke’s notion of the Sublime. If, as Burke said, such feelings stem from a sense of danger abrogated by distance and transformed into beauty, the live telescope imagesof comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashing into Jupiter and leaving an Earth-sized hole in 1994 did it for me.
There’s a little taste of the same in the image just released by a team of astronomers of a planet in the throes of being born around another star.
Sure, we already knew that “extrasolar” planets exist—there’s now a catalogue of thousands of them, seen mostly from the periodic, tiny dip in their parent star’s light as the planet passes in front of it, or from the wobble that a large enough planet induces in the star. We can deduce the masses, sizes and positions of these planets, and thereby have a sense of the tremendous diversity of other worlds beyond our solar system. We’ve even been able to measure the reflected light from a few such planets.
But the object now seen by a team led by astronomers at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, using a telescope at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile, is something else. It’s a planet in the process of formation, and the researchers have actually captured an image of it: a bright blob in the disk of hot gas and dust around a young dwarf star called PDS 70, in the constellation of Centaurus 370 light years away. We’re literally watching worlds in the making.