Astronomers have observed in unprecedented detail the processes giving rise to stars and planets in nascent solar systems. The team was able to peer deeply into protoplanetary disks—swirling clouds of gas and dust that feed the growing star in its center and eventually coalesce into planets and asteroids to form a solar system.
The big challenge was to obtain the extremely fine resolution necessary to observe the processes that happen at the boundary between the star and its surrounding disk–500 light years from Earth. It’s like standing on a rooftop in Tucson trying to observe an ant nibbling on a grain of rice in New York’s Central Park.
“The angular resolution you can achieve with the Hubble Space Telescope is about 100 times too coarse to be able to see what is going on just outside of a nascent star not much bigger than our sun,” explains University of Arizona astronomer Joshua Eisner. In other words, even a protoplanetary disk close enough to be considered in the neighborhood of our solar system would appear as a featureless blob.
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Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech