For the first time, astronomers have detected around a burgeoning solar system a sprawling cloud of water vapor that’s cold enough to form comets, which could eventually deliver oceans to dry planets. Water is an essential ingredient for life. Scientists have found thousands of Earth-oceans’ worth of it within the planet-forming disk surrounding the star TW Hydrae. TW Hydrae is 176 light years away in the constellation Hydra and is the closest solar-system-to-be.
University of Michigan astronomy professor Ted Bergin is a co-author of a paper on the findings published in the Oct. 21 edition of Science. The researchers used the Heterodyne Instrument for the Far-Infrared (HIFI) on the orbiting Hershel Space Observatory to detect the chemical signature of water.
“This tells us that the key materials that life needs are present in a system before planets are born,” said Bergin, a HIFI co-investigator. “We expected this to be the case, but now we know it is because have directly detected it. We can see it.”