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Wednesday, February 10, 1999 Published at 08:42 GMT


Hubble spies planet 'nurseries'

The dark band is the disc viewed side on

Is this a picture of planets in the making?

It was taken by Nasa's Hubble Space Telescope. It shows a huge disc of dust and gas encircling a young star in the constellation Taurus 450 light-years away. The disc is viewed edge-on.

The material in the disc is so thick it mostly obscures the light coming from the star and appears as a dark band across the centre of the image.

It is a lucky snapshot. Circumstellar disks are normally very difficult to see, largely because the glare of the central star overpowers the feeble reflected light from the disc.

[ image: A very young star still deep within the dusty cocoon from which it formed]
A very young star still deep within the dusty cocoon from which it formed
The huge mass of material in the pancake will likely condense to form planets, in the same way as the Earth and the other planets in our own Solar System are thought to have been made 4.5 billion years ago. Indeed, if Hubble had been around then to take a picture of our Sun, it may well have looked like this.

More than a dozen possible extrasolar planets have been discovered (though not imaged) over the past few years, but astronomers lack detailed pictures of environments around newborn stars where planets form.

"While the existence of these discs has been known from prior infrared and radio observations, the Hubble images reveal important new details such as a disc's size, shape, thickness, and orientation," said Deborah Padgett of Caltech's Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, Pasadena, California.

Six stars

Deborah Padgett's group used Hubble's Near-Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (Nicmos) to peer through obscuring dust clouds surrounding six stars. Evidence for dusty disks was found in all of them, in the form of dark bands or dust lanes crossing bright areas around each star. The presumed discs have sizes 8 to 16 times the diameter of Neptune's orbit.

[ image: The two stars in this binary system are clearly visible]
The two stars in this binary system are clearly visible
"The Nicmos images show dark clumps and bright streamers above and below the dust lanes, suggesting that raw material is still falling into these disks and driving outflowing jets of gas from the forming stars," Padgett said. Her results are reported in a paper to appear in the March 1999 issue of The Astronomical Journal.

Two other Hubble research groups report similar discoveries. One team from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has found the first example of an edge-on disk in a young double star system. Their work suggests that planet formation should be possible even in such binary star systems.

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