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Astronomers may have found the smallest planet in the Galaxy

In the past 30 years, astronomers have found more than 5,000 exoplanets, a generous menagerie of worlds far from our stellar neighborhood. The latest may be an only infant.

In the journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters, scientists on Tuesday announced compelling evidence for a world just 1.5 million years old, making it one of the youngest planets ever discovered, perhaps the youngest.

This world – 395 light-years from Earth in the constellation Ophiuchus – is so small that its building blocks of gas and dust are still coming together. This planet is a newborn baby wrapped in the arms of its parent star.

“It’s like looking back at our own past,” said study co-author Miriam Benisti, an astronomer at the Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics of Grenoble in France.

Since the suspected planet is covered by the material that is making it up, further telescope observations will be needed to confirm its existence. Assuming it isn’t a rocky detritus in the form of a planet, scientists can use it to understand how worlds form.

The torrent of newly discovered exoplanets has complicated or disproved long-standing theories of planet formation. But the location of this baby planet – firmly within the disk of elemental matter around its star – supports the idea that most planets spend most of their time developing in similar nurseries.

The discovery of the celestial pip suggests that “all planetary systems have a common formation process,” said Anders Johansson, an astronomer at Lund University in Sweden who was not involved in the study. Despite the chaos of the universe, he said, “there are actually a lot of orders” when it comes to crafting planets.

The team of scientists used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a collection of 66 antennas working together in Chile, to gather evidence of this very young world. The gas and dust in the so-called circumstellar disk orbit some stars. This material, which clumps together to form the planets within these disks, emits radio waves that ALMA can detect.

Last year, Dr. Benisti and his colleagues published A. used ALMA for the first clear detection of A halo of gas and dust orbiting an exoplanet: an orbiting foundry still enveloping worlds, and perhaps some moons as well.

For the latest study, they pointed ALMA at AS 209, a star only slightly heavier than the Sun. At just 1.5 million years old, it has recently begun burning hydrogen—the stellar equivalent of a child speaking its first words.

Several gaps were found in the circumstantial disk of AS 209. And in one such interval, ALMA detected a planet-forming storm, the radio-wave signature of gas, possibly covering a Jupiter-like world that is still under construction.

The planet’s exact age will not be resolved soon, but it is likely to be similar to that of its newborn star. But its youthfulness isn’t the only thing plaguing astronomers’ interests. It is also surprisingly far from its star. Neptune, the outermost planet in our solar system, is about 2.8 billion miles from the Sun. This exoplanet is about 19 billion miles away from its own star.

It raises questions about our own neck of the woods.

The size of the debris disk that makes up Earth and the other planets is uncertain. “Maybe the disk was only slightly larger than Neptune’s orbit, and that’s why Neptune is the outermost planet,” said Dr. Johansson. But perhaps our center of planet-forming matter was something like AS 209. If so, “we can’t even rule out that there is a planet beyond Neptune in our own solar system,” he said — perhaps the hypothesized Planet 9 that some astronomers suspect lies in the distant darkness.

In the coming days, the James Webb Space Telescope will determine the mass of the newborn planet and study its atmospheric chemistry. And by painting a detailed picture of one of the youngest worlds known to science, these observations will bring us all closer to answering the final question, said study author Jehan Bey, an astronomer at the University of Florida and where: Where did we come from?”

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