Using sensitive optical instruments and computer enhancement techniques, two astronomers believe that they may have “photographed” what could be a new solar system forming around Beta Pictoris, a star 50 lightyears from earth. Using a 254-cm telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, combined with a charged-coupled device (CCD) and a coronagraph, an optical instrument developed for detecting very faint objects close to brighter ones, the astronomers photographed clearly for the first time a large group of solid particles, called a circumstellar disk, surrounding the star. This disk may be evidence of a new solar system.
The scientists, Bradford A. Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson, and Richard J. Terrile of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., say that there is some evidence that planets could have formed around the star. The brightness of the star seen through its disk indicates that the innermost particles of the disk may have been swept away; the formation of planets would produce this effect. However, the astronomers have not yet been able to determine if there are actually planets around the star.