Washington, March 27 : Astrophysicists have observed a circumstellar disk around the star AB Aurigae, which displays telltale signs of planet formation.
The research that led to the finding was carried out by a team of astrophysicists at the American Museum of Natural History, and was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
As part of the research, Ben R. Oppenheimer, assistant curator in the museum's Department of Astrophysics, and his colleagues, used the Lyot Project coronograph attached to a U.S. Air Force telescope on Maui, Hawaii, to construct an image of material that seems to be coalescing into a body from the gas and dust cloud surrounding AB Aurigae.
According to the researchers, the body is either a planet or a brown dwarf - something with mass between a star or a planet.
Brown dwarfs have been found orbiting stars since a team that included Oppenheimer first discovered one in 1995.
"The research builds upon Dr. Openheimer's past successes in the detection of a brown dwarf and several debris disks and take advantage of an improved, deformable, secondary mirror which was installed at the telescope facility in 2006," said NSF Program Manager Julian Christou.
The image produced by Oppenheimer's team shows a horseshoe-shaped void in the disc with a bright point appearing as a dot in the void.
"The deficit of material could be due to a planet forming and sucking material onto it, coalescing into a small point in the image and clearing material in the immediate surroundings," said Oppenheimer. "It seems to be indicative of the formation of a small body, either a planet or a brown dwarf," he added.
"The image produced speaks directly to the biggest, unresolved question of planet formation - how the thick disk of debris and gas evolves into a thin, dusty region with planets," said Christou.
The observation of stars slightly older than AB Aurigae shows that at some point the gas is removed, but no one knows how this happens. AB Aurigae could be in an intermediate stage, where the gas is being cleared out from the center, leaving mainly dust behind.
"More detailed observations of this star can help solve questions about how some planets form, and can possibly test competing theories," said Oppenheimer.