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First-ever image of baby planet being formed gives astronomers "new window"

The photo provided by the European Southern Observatory ESO taken from the SPHERE instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope is the first clear image of a planet caught in the very act of formation around the dwarf star PDS 70. 

ESO via AP

BERLIN -- Astronomers say they've captured the first confirmed image of a planet forming in the dust swirling around a young star. Scientists said Monday the planet appears as a bright spot in the snapshot taken using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile.

Miriam Kepler of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany said hints of baby planets have been detected before, but astronomers weren't sure whether those observations might simply be features in the swirling dust.

"These disks around young stars are the birthplaces of planets, but so far only a handful of observations have detected hints of baby planets in them," Miriam Keppler said in a statement. "The problem is that, until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disk."

In a paper to be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, scientists describe the planet, located about 1.86 billion miles from the star PDS 70, as a gas giant bigger than Jupiter.  They say it has a cloudy atmosphere and a surface temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit).

The analyses suggest that the new planet, known as PDS 70b, is two to three times bigger than Jupiter — about as far as Uranus is from the sun, Space.com reports.

"Keppler's results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly understood early stages of planetary evolution," André Müller, who led a second team studying the new planet, said in a statement.