Washington, September 24 (ANI): NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has witnessed a clump of planet-forming material around a young star.
Planets form out of swirling disks of gas and dust. Spitzer observed infrared light coming from one such disk around a young star, called LRLL 31, over a period of five months.
To the astronomers' surprise, the light varied in unexpected ways, and in as little time as one week.
Planets take millions of years to form, so it's rare to seen anything change on time scales we humans can perceive.
One possible explanation is that a close companion to the star - either a star or a developing planet - could be shoving planet-forming material together, causing its thickness to vary as it spins around the star.
"We don't know if planets have formed, or will form, but we are gaining a better understanding of the properties and dynamics of the fine dust that could either become, or indirectly shape, a planet," said James Muzerolle of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland.
"This is a unique, real-time glimpse into the lengthy process of building planets," he added.
Muzerolle and his team set out to study a family of young stars, many with known transitional disks.
The stars are about two to three million years old and about 1,000 light-years away, in the IC 348 star-forming region of the constellation Perseus.
A few of the stars showed surprising hints of variations.
The astronomers followed up on one, LRLL 31, studying the star over five months with all three of Spitzer's instruments.
The observations showed that light from the inner region of the star's disk changes every few weeks, and, in one instance, in only one week.
"Transition disks are rare enough, so to see one with this type of variability is really exciting," said co-author Kevin Flaherty of the University of Arizona, Tucson. (ANI)