Hubble telescope finds crucial clues about planet formation by studying star cluster Westerlund 2

Stars that reside in the centre of a cluster would have lesser chances of forming planets while the chances of planet formation are higher in the outer layers.


The Hubble space telescope was used by scientists to study a dense star cluster for three years to find out which environment suits planet formation.

In the period between 2016 and 2019, the massive young star cluster ‘Westerlund 2’ in the Milky Way was studied. This was the first time that astronomers analysed an extremely dense star cluster to see which environments were “favourable to planet formation”.

The study found that the material encircling the stars located in the centre of the cluster were devoid of the huge dense clouds of dust which would have become planets after a few million years. This mysterious absence of dust clouds was being caused by the brightest of the stars in the clusters. These massive bright stars were eroding the disc of dust from neighbouring stars.

The brilliant tapestry of young stars flaring to life resemble a glittering fireworks display in this Hubble Space Telescope archival image. Image credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team, A. Nota, and the Westerlund 2 Science Team

The brilliant tapestry of young stars flaring to life resemble a glittering fireworks display in this Hubble Space Telescope archival image. Image credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team, A. Nota, and the Westerlund 2 Science Team

Hence, scientists found that stars which reside in the central portion of a cluster would face a “rough and tumble” neighbourhood which “suppresses” planets from forming. However, chances of planet formation are much higher for stars in the outer layers of the cluster. This is possible because they do not have to face the “blistering” ultraviolet light and hurricane.

Westerlund 2 was studied for the “stellar evolutionary processes” because of its high density of stellar population and young age. Located 20,000 light-years away, the cluster is showing similar patterns which our solar system did about 4.6 billion years ago, during its formation years.

Explaining the phenomenon, Elena Sabbi of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, lead researcher of the Hubble study, said, “Basically, if you have monster stars, their energy is going to alter the properties of the disks around nearby, less massive stars.”

“You may still have a disk, but the stars change the composition of the dust in the disks, so it's harder to create stable structures that will eventually lead to planets. We think the dust either evaporates away in 1 million years, or it changes in composition and size so dramatically that planets don't have the building blocks to form,” she added.


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