Birth of a solar system

October 2, 2006

Brussels, 29 Sep 2006

New research from the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT), based in Chile, has found what the team believes to be the early formation of a new solar system. A star larger than our own sun spins matter and debris out into space, which could eventually form into planets. 'Planets form in massive, gaseous and dusty proto-planetary discs that surround nascent stars. This process must be rather ubiquitous as more than 200 planets have now been found around stars other than the Sun,' said team leader Pierre-Olivier Lagage, from CEA Saclay in France. 'However, very little is known about these discs, especially those around stars more massive than the Sun. Such stars are much more luminous and could have a large influence on their disc, possibly quickly destroying the inner part.'

According to the ESO, if the age of our sun is compressed to comparable human years, then it would be around 40 years old. By comparison, the HD 97048 formation would be only three days old using the same scale. The disc's dust and debris will be the birthplace for new planets.

The team, from France and the Netherlands, observed and mapped the disc using the Spectrometer for the InfraRed (VISIR). The baby system, known as HD 97048, is 600 million light years away and comprises the star and a disc of debris which extends some 12 times the distance from the sun to Neptune. 'This is the first time such a structure, predicted by some theoretical models, is imaged around a massive star,' said Dr Lagage.

The team's calculations predict a vast quantity of dust and gas within this disc, and, 'From the structure of the disc, we infer that planetary embryos may be present in the inner part of the disc,' said Dr Lagage.

The next stage is to look more deeply to see whether the new planets can be found amongst the debris. 'We are planning follow up observations at higher angular resolution with ESO's VLT interferometer in order to probe these regions,' he said.

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