Cosmic "Baby Photos" of Distant Solar Systems Lend Insight As To How Planets Form
Thursday, August 20, 2009
News Feature

(Written by Christine Pulliam, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, for Science at the Smithsonian, a website featuring highlights of scientific research at the Smithsonian Institution. )

How do planets form? This most basic question of astrophysics continues to stump astronomers. They know that gas and dust clump together over thousands or millions of years, but details beyond that have been tough to pin down. Partly, that’s because even the closest young solar systems are far away and difficult to study in detail.

New observations by the Smithsonian’s Submillimeter Array, a radio telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, are shedding light on planet formation. The array provides sharp views by combining eight antennas into the equivalent of a single, large telescope. It can resolve details as small as a dime seen from seven miles away.