Scientists find building blocks of new planet

Author:  Corbaley Dean
Date:  October 2007

On the 4th of this month, astronomers reported that they had found a solar system that has all the makings for a habitable planet to form. Although this planet may not form for millions of years, it is in the right spot for life to form, or even just to support life.

This gives us an ideal look at what early formation of the earth and the other inner planets might have been like. Because the star is too far away to accurately determine the structure of the matter ring, we have to use the limited techniques that we do have to determine heat and distance. Right now, the leading technique for this purpose is infrared radiation.

From this analysis the astronomers have determined that the habitable zone lies about 1.8 times the distance from Earth to the sun, referred to as 1 AU, where the temperature is in the ranges of 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Although the actual matter field spans from 0.35 AU to 5.8 AU, the amount of material in the habitable zone is only enough to form a planet one-tenth of the size of Earth.

"We're seeing the building blocks of the earth," says Carey Lisse, an astrophysicist at Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, M.D.. He is co-authoring a report on the star system set to be published in the Astrophysicist Journal.

This particular star, designated HD 113766A, is about 16 million years old and is slightly larger than our own sun. 113766A is the brighter star of a binary star set, which makes it unusual to have the matter ring forming around it. The star is still quite young, especially compared to our own 5-billion-year-old sun. This age puts it at the stage when our own planets Jupiter and Saturn had been formed, and the inner planets in our solar system were still clouds of dust.

Studying this newly-forming system could answer many questions that astrophysicists have about planetary rings around start systems, anything from the actual formation of the planet to why planetary rings usually only form around one star in a binary set. It will take this particular planet another 10 to 100 million years to form, but in between then and now it can tell quite a story for those paying close attention, which Lisee and others certainly intend to do.

Written by Dean Corbaley

Reviewed by Shilpa Gowda, Hoi See Tsao

Published by Pooja Ghatalia.