The Violent Environs of Early Planets

These are not the kind of stars you want to trust with your newborn. They are so violent that they send off waves of ultraviolet radiation that should blast the dust to smithereens in a few hundred thousand years, O'Dell told the American Physical Society in Washington this week.

Most experts think it takes at least 10 million years for new planets to form, and therein lies the problem. Before the planets can form, the protoplanetary disk will be wiped out by the hot breath from neighboring big stars.

"It appears that most of the disks will be gone long before planets can form," O'Dell says.

The finding fits neatly with other recent research on the Orion Nebula. A team led by scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder used the Hubble to study dust particles in the nebula. The researchers found evidence of dusty disks surrounding several young stars similar to our sun, and the dust appears to be clumping together in what would be the first stage of planetary formation.

But like their colleagues at Vanderbilt, the Colorado researchers also found the "nursery" so violent that "it's a hard place to raise a family of planets," says researcher Henry Throop.

The problem, once again, is massive stars that blast their neighbors.

"UV [ultraviolet] light comes streaming off these large stars like a blowtorch, evaporating the gases and removing the dust from the circumstellar dust rings of the smaller stars," Troop says.

Lonely Universe?

That appears to eliminate any chance that most of the stars will form planets, but on the other hand, some stars that were farther away from the bullies seem to be doing quite well. So some of the stars should be able to produce planets, just not nearly as many as had been thought.

So it doesn't mean there aren't any more planets out there like Earth. We know planets can form, because it happened here. But if the latest research withstands the test of time, it may turn out that stars with planets are the oddballs.

And the universe could be a lot lonelier than we might like.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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