Astronomers have detected dust grains glomming together around a faraway star, capturing a snapshot of what appear to be newly forming alien planets caught in the act of being born.
Scientists used the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii to image the disk of dust and gas surrounding UX Tauri A, a young star found about 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus (The Bull). Analysis of the image revealed large and non-spherical dust particles — a telltale sign that grains are adhering to each other in a process that will eventually lead to planet formation, researchers said.
UX Tauri A is a sun-like star about 1 million years old, and it's part of a binary star system. Back in 2007, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope discovered a gap in the protoplanetary disk surrounding UX Tauri A, suggesting that one or more planets may be taking shape there.
This gap is huge, extending from 0.2 to 56 astronomical units from UX Tauri A (1 astronomical unit is the distance from Earth to the sun, or about 93 million miles). If this gap were transported to our solar system, it would range from Mercury to Pluto, researchers have said.