We've known for some time that planets like Earth are born from disks of gas, ice, and dust surrounding stars as they themselves form. But details matter: Planets like Earth form differently than ones like Jupiter, and where in the disk they're born makes a difference in their potential size, composition, and more.
These disks can be many billions of kilometers across, but the distances to stars are vast; even close-by stars are a thousand trillion kilometers from us! It takes powerful telescopes and a lot of clever technology to discern them.
And oh, have I mentioned that astronomers have powerful telescopes and a lot of clever technology?
Debris disks forming planetary bodies around nearby stars, taken with the Gemini Planetary Imager. Credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/T. Esposito (UC Berkeley) Image processing: Travis Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), Mahdi Zamani & Davide de Martin
WHOA. Those images show just six of the 26 debris disks seen around nearby stars found in the Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey. Debris disks are where the material around the star has already started to coalesce and form smaller objects (like asteroid-sized bodies) and possibly planets as well.
For the survey, astronomers targeted nearby (closer than ...