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Astronomers using a powerful telescope in southern Chile said Thursday they have captured the first direct image of a protoplanet forming around another star, still embedded in thick gas and dust.
An international team of researchers said the disc of gas and dust surrounding the young star HD 100546, located 335 light years from Earth in the Milky Way galaxy, would be a gas giant similar to Jupiter.
"So far, planet formation has mostly been a topic tackled by computer simulations," said lead scientist Sascha Quanz, an astronomer at Swiss university ETH Zurich.
"If our discovery is indeed a forming planet, then for the first time scientists will be able to study the planet formation process and the interaction of a forming planet and its natal environment empirically at a very early stage."
The astronomers said several features of the image support the theory that giant planets grow by picking up gas and dust remaining after a star forms.
Scientists detected the protoplanet using a high-resolution camera linked to the European Southern Observatory's telescope in Chile's Atacama desert.
The ESO, a collaboration involving 15 mainly European countries, operates a number of high-powered telescopes in Chile, including the Very Large Telescope array (VLT), the world's most advanced telescope.