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COSMIC DUST NEAR YOUNG STARS MAY FORM PLANETS

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Swirling clouds of dust similar to the ones that theorists believe created Earth have been found around stars 1,500 light years away, an astronomer says.

"This provides a strong proof that protoplanetary disks are common part in star formation," said Dr. Robert C. O'Dell of Rice University.The Hubble space telescope took pictures of a portion of the Orion nebula that showed 100 stars, and O'Dell found that 56 of them were surrounded by disks of dust he calls "proplyds."

All of the stars are very young, less than a million years old, he told a news conference Monday.

At the center of each disk on the new images is a young star. Most scientists agree that Earth and other planets in the solar system were formed out of such disks 4.5 billion years ago as gravitational attraction caused the dust to agglomerate into an ever-larger ball.

Planets are necessary for life as it is known on Earth to become established and flourish. The probability that planets are common in the universe raises the likelihood of the existence of life beyond Earth.

The dust pancakes are visible because they are illuminated by the hottest stars in the Orion nebula, while established planets haven't been seen because they are too small.