LAS VEGAS (KSNV) — It’s known as the final frontier, and there are still so many questions.
UNLV researchers are hoping to unlock the answer to how planets form, and they are now one step closer after finding a group of young planets in distant solar systems.
Our solar system was formed about 4 billion years ago, but within the Milky Way, there are a million other young star systems with planets forming right now.
What they learned is that no two are alike, but there are many similarities.
“What we’re looking at here is our solar system, billions of years ago,” said Zhaohuan Zhu, an astrophysicist and UNLV professor.
He said these particular 20 stars have their own planetary systems and, until now, they weren’t detectable using other current planet-researching techniques.
“That gap that you see here, it could be already that there is a planet formed in these discs and starting to open a gap,” he said.
Using high-resolution images from the Alma telescope, Zhu led an international study to get a better understanding of how planets form.
“We are using these spirals and these gaps to look for the planet properties in young systems,” Zhu said.
Two years of research went into this groundbreaking study, which Zhu said reveals two important things.
“There are no two systems identical," he said.
However, they also share similar properties to our solar system and many have Jupiter- and Neptune-sized young planets forming.
“These could be like imprints of young planets formed, like Jupiter,” said Zhu. He added, “We are not that special.”
In other words, our solar system could just be a regular planetary system in our Milky Way, just much older.
So does this mean these 20 proto-planetary disks still surrounded by gas and dust and forming planets could eventually support life?
Perhaps, but not for millions or billions of years.
“It’s hard to sustain life on this young system because it’s very chaotic. Imagine the earth was assembling. So you have all the collision rocks, the meteorites hit the earth, it’s very hot so it’s not habitable," Zhu said.
Zhu said there’s still a lot to be learned by studying these 20 images in detail. He said this international collaboration is really just the beginning.