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New Planet Discovery "Missing Link", UCR Professor Contributes to Finding

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (USRA)

How planets are formed is one of the great mysteries of astrophysics. KVCR’s Megan Jamerson spoke with a University of California Riverside(UCR) professor who contributed to an exciting discovery on the topic published in the journal Nature.

Scientists believe planets are born from disks of gas and dust orbiting new stars, but it has never been observed first hand. So, when data confirmed the existence of a planet caught in the act of forming in the debris around a young star, Dr. Stephen Kane was thrilled.

“It was quite a eureka moment,” said Kane.

Kane is a co-author of a paper on the discovery and associate professor of planetary astrophysics at UCR. He says the Neptune sized planet called AU Microscopii b, offers a unique chance to study the formation and composition of planets and their atmospheres. With over 4,000 planets discovered in the heavens, he says this one stands out from the crowd.

“The reason this one is so special is because of its youth," said Kane. "It is an extremely young planet. It is only 20 million years old.”

Now 20 million years doesn’t sound very young, but considering the solar system is four and a half billion years old, this is a planet that recently formed or is still in the act of formation. It sits over 31 light years away—outside of our solar system but still within what Kane calls our solar neighborhood.

The team also knows the planet’s mass and radius which will be key in understanding its composition. Kane helped develop an instrument for identifying the planet’s mass and was part of the team that spotted its transit in front of its star. The goal is to continue data collection to help put the formation of our solar system into a better context.

“What we will be able to do in further observations is we will actually be able to measure the atmosphere of this planet, learn a little bit more about its composition and try and understand how it relates to planets in our solar system and how the planets in our solar system formed,” said Kane.

The team’s next chance to observe the planet will come later in 2020.