Nearby planet-forming disk holds water for thousands of oceans

This is an illustration depicting the sprawling cloud of cold water vapor that astronomers have detected around the burgeoning solar system at the nearby star TW Hydrae. The cold water vapor could could eventually deliver oceans to dry planets that are forming in the system. Credit: Credit: Tim Pyle, Spitzer Science Center, CalTech

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.”

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One Response to Nearby planet-forming disk holds water for thousands of oceans

  1. mshaddad says:

    I think it is fairly clear from Earth’s own history that water was necessary for life to come into existence, but it really seems like an issue of probability. One could conceivably envisage a scenario in which life evolves in a system based on some other chemical – perhaps this would be more or less probable, but given a large enough number of experiments (i.e., planets) it is inevitable that something will occur if the probability of occurrence is above zero.

    Findings such as this are interesting in that they increase the likelihood of finding a planet with life, but in practice is it really useful? Even if the chance of finding a living planet are increased, will we find one if the probability is still very, very low? I can never tell the goals of astrophysicists in that regard – are they looking for something or are they just curious?

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