Using four of the world’s largest telescopes, scientists have obtained the most detailed information yet from the regions around two young stars tens of light-years away, finding compact disks of rocky and dusty material at distances comparable to that from Earth to the Sun. Keele University astronomer Rachel Smith presented the team’s results Wednesday, April 14 at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Glasgow.
The astronomers used data from the MIDI interferometer, an instrument that combines the infrared light from the 8-meter diameter telescopes of the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile to simulate the performance of a single telescope with a mirror more than 330 feet (100 meters) across.
One intriguing possibility for the source of the dust is that the planets around HD 69830 are experiencing a high rate of impacts from asteroids and comets smashing into their surfaces. A similar disk also exists close in to Eta Corvi, lying between 15 and 280 million miles (24 to 450 million km) from its stellar host. For comparison, Earth is on average about 93 million miles (150 million km) away from the Sun.
Smith sees this work as part of the overall quest to find earthlike planets around other stars. “With MIDI, we have access to a truly giant telescope that can see the universe in unprecedented detail,” she said. “By probing regions of a similar scale to the Earth’s orbit, we have the potential to observe the dusty results of massive collisions in the final stages of rocky planet formation and learn about the conditions earthlike planets in other planetary systems may experience. The opportunities for directly testing our theories for how planets form and evolve have never been greater.”
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