Using the new Keck II telescope in Hawaii , scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif. have discovered what appears to be the clearest evidence yet of a budding solar system around a star known as HR 4796, about 220 light-years from Earth
"This may be what our solar system looked like at the end of its main planetary formation phase," said Dr. Michael Werner of JPL, who co-discovered the nascent solar system with Drs. David Koerner and Michael Ressler, also of JPL, and Dana Backman of Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Penn.
At a Tuesday news conference, scientists released an image of the probable site of planet formation, taken with a sensitive infrared camera developed at JPL. It shows a swirling disk of dust around the star. Within the disk is a tell-tale empty region that may have been swept clean when material was pulled into newly formed planetary bodies, the scientists said.
"Comets may be forming right now in the disk's outer portion from remaining debris." said Werner
The discovery was made March 16 from the giant 33-foot Keck II telescope atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Keck II. Attached to the Keck II for this observation was the mid-infrared camera, developed by Ressler at JPL and designed to measure heat radiation.
The four scientists reported their discovery in a submission to the Astrophysical Journal Letters. The disk was discovered independently at the Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile by another team of scientists, led by Ray Jayawardhana of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and Dr. Charles Telesco of the University of Florida, Gainesville.
Koerner said the finding represents a "missing link" in the study of how planetary systems are born and evolve. "In a sense, we've already peeked into the stellar family album and seen baby pictures and middle-aged photos," Koerner said.
"With HR 4796, we're seeing a picture of a young adult star starting its own family of planets. This is the link between disks around very young stars and disks around mature stars, many with planets already orbiting them."
He said the finding suggests that formation of planets like the Earth and its sisters is common and "perhaps there are lots of places for life to exist.''
The discovery of the HR 4796 disk was made in just one hour of observing time at Keck, but the JPL team plans to return to Hawaii in June for further studies.
JPL's use of the Keck telescope is supported by NASA's Origins program, a series of missions to study the formation of galaxies, stars, planets and life, and to search for Earth-like planets around other stars that might have the right conditions
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