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HubbleSite Astronomical Forensics Uncover Planetary Disks in Hubble Archive


Space Telescope Science

Nearly 2,000 planets have been confirmed to be orbiting other stars in our galaxy. But the details of planet birth and formation are sparse. The conventional wisdom, dating back to a hypothesis by philosopher Immanuel Kant in the late 1700s, considered the orbit of the planets in our solar system to be the skeleton of disks of dust and gas that swirled around the newborn sun. The dust particles clumped together to build planets from the ground up.

More than 200 years later the Hubble Space Telescope's exquisite resolution and sensitivity have allowed astronomers to discover dusty disks around young stars. These disks are believed to be fed by dust blasted off newborn planets colliding with a clutter of other bodies in the system. The disks only reflect light, and so are much fainter than their parent star. The disks are warmed by the star, and so glow at infrared wavelengths as well. Applying new image processing techniques, astronomers have been able to tease out images of disks hidden away in Hubble infrared data taken over a decade ago. This underscores the importance of archiving astronomical observations for future astronomers. If at first you don't find something wonderful and mysterious out there, try, try again.

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