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Birth of a solar system?

HR 4796
The star known as HR 4796 is one of the closest candidates for possible Earth-like planetary satellites  

'Nearby' planet-forming zone spotted

April 21, 1998
Web posted at: 1:42 p.m. EDT (1742 GMT)

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Planets like Earth may be forming elsewhere in the universe, astronomers said on Tuesday, following the recent discovery of a "young" star that may be in the process of creating its own solar system.

The star, about 1,320 trillion miles from Earth in the constellation Centaurus, is surrounded by a vast, rotating dust cloud, called a "disk." Newborn planets already may have formed within the disk, said Michael Werner of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at a Washington news conference.
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NASA's Michael Werner shows an animation of how planets might form
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Within the disk is an empty region, or hole, that may have been swept clean when material from the dust cloud was pulled into newly formed planetary bodies, according to David Koerner of the JPL, who co-discovered the region.
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"This hole is as large as our entire solar system," he told reporters. The disk itself is about three times the size of Pluto's orbit around the sun.

But the scientists said it remains to be seen whether the forming planets contain ingredients for the emergence of life or will include planets the size of Jupiter and Saturn, the largest in our solar system. It was possible, they said, the disk may consist only of asteroids and comets.

Keck II
Keck II telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii  

How it happened here?

The star and dust formation could be what our solar system looked like at the end of its main planetary formation phase, Werner said.

Koerner called the finding a "missing link" in the study of how planetary systems are born and evolve.

Scientists released an image of the probable site of planet formation around the star, known as HR 4796. The image was taken with a sensitive infrared camera developed at JPL.

HR 4796 is not the first candidate for possible Earth-like planetary satellites, but it is one of the closest and also represents a crucial period in planetary evolution.

It may be a youthful cousin of Beta Pictoris, which is also a good prospect for a solar system like our own. But Beta Pictoris, whose surrounding dust disk was discovered in 1983, is about 200 million years old, while HR 4796 is about 10 million, a prime planet-making age.

Keck II image
A Keck II image without the effects of Keck's optics and added noise shows the large hole in the dust cloud  

Recent discovery

HR 4796 and the outer disk was spotted by the Keck II telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, March 16 by astronomers based at JPL and Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

The dust disk was discovered at the same time by another team at the Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile. This team included scientists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts and the University of Florida at Gainesville.

Nature magazine Tuesday published related observations by astronomers from the Joint Astronomy Center in Hawaii and at the University of California, Los Angeles, funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA.

These scientists said their observations of three of the most well-known stars in the Milky Way -- Vega, Fomalhaut and Beta Pictoris -- suggested that planets in our galaxy may be more common than previously believed.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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