Stars Jostle for Spotlight

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It’s tough being a disk of star dust, as HR 4796 is rapidly finding out. The planetary nursery had barely begun its 15 minutes of fame when a bunch of pretenders started competing for the title of most newly discovered solar system. Writing in Tuesday’s edition of the journal Nature, scientists at UCLA and the Joint Astronomy Center reveal that potential new planetary breeding grounds are simply popping out of the cosmic woodwork. Their observations of three Milky Way stalwarts -- Vega, Fomalhaut and Beta Pictoris -- may also have turned up a family of satellites. “But whether the disks contain majestic planets like Jupiter and Saturn or just comets and asteroids remains to be seen,” cautioned UCLA’s Benjamin Zuckerman.

Still, HR 4796 has three advantages over the competition -- proximity, youth and beauty. Not only is it a hop and a skip away in galactic terms (1,320 trillion miles), the dust disk is a sprightly 10 million years old -- a twentieth of Beta Pictoris’ age, far better for studying the birth of planets. “We’d assumed for a long time that this is how planets form, but we had no evidence of any kind for it,” says TIME Science writer Michael Lemonick. “The evidence has been trickling in for the past few years, and this is another small piece of that puzzle. Until you actually detect the planets directly, it’s not proof, but this does advance the theory.”

All in all, it’s great publicity for NASA’s proposed orbiting Planet Finder, set for launch in the next century. “Within most of our lifetimes, we’re going to have an answer to the question: Are there other Earths out there?” said NASA stargazer Ed Weiler. “Whether there is life out there is still debatable.”