60-Second Science

Many Sun-like Stars Can Harbor Earth-like Planets

By measuring the temperature of dust circling nearby Sun-like stars, researchers conclude that rocky bodies are smashing into each other with the potential to aggregate into rocky planets. Steve Mirsky reports from the AAAS conference in Boston.

Earth-like planets have the potential to form around many—and perhaps most—of the nearest stars that are like our sun.  Michael Meyer of the University of Arizona announced that discovery Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Meyer says that between 20 and 60 percent of the stars are candidates for the development of rocky planets. 

The researchers used the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope.  Meyer explains: “With Spitzer, we detect the heat radiation of dust grains, not unlike the smoke you will see rising from chimneys (around here in the Boston area) on a cold day.” Models say that the observed warm dust is consistent with small rocky bodies smashing into each other.  “From those observations of dust, we infer the presence of colliding larger rocky bodies, not unlike asteroids and other things in our solar system that we know bang together and generate dust.  By tracing that dust, we trace these dynamical processes that we think led to the formation of the terrestrial planets in our solar system.”

—Steve Mirsky, at the AAAS conference in Boston

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