Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Keck Telescopes Gaze into Young Star's "Life Zone"

The inner regions of young planet-forming disks offer information about how worlds like Earth form, but not a single telescope in the world can see them. Yet, for the first time, astronomers using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii have measured the properties of a young solar system at distances closer to the star than Venus is from our sun.

"When it comes to building rocky planets like our own, the innermost part of the disk is where the action is," said team member William Danchi at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Planets forming in a star's inner disk may orbit within its "habitable zone," where conditions could potentially support the development of life.

To achieve the feat, the team used the Keck Interferometer to combine infrared light gathered by both of the observatory's twin 10-meter telescopes, which are separated by 85 meters. The double-barreled approach gives astronomers the effective resolution of a single 85-meter telescope -- several times larger than any now planned.