Researchers at Sheffield University have found that the chance of finding an Earth-like planet in its early stages of development is higher than we initially thought, paving the way for future research into how habitable planets form.

The study, published in The Astrophysical Journal, focused on young moving groups (YMGs). These are collections of young stars – under 100 million years old – that are naturally found together due to forming from the same molecular cloud. They looked at these YMGs to see if they were consistent with previous observations made in different star-forming regions of space. 

Researchers found that in these groups there are more stars capable of hosting planets than previously thought. These are the stars that are similar to the Sun in temperature and mass. 

Dr Richard Parker, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, said, “They typically only contain a few tens of stars each and previously it was difficult to determine whether we had found all the stars in each group”. He went on to say, “Observations from the Gaia telescope have helped us to find many more stars in these groups”.

The Gaia telescope is a space observatory owned by the European Space Agency. Its equipment is for precisely charting the positions and motions of stars over a five-year period. 

The Earth-like planets that can be seen are still in their early stages of formation. A planet forms when the material left over from the star’s creation slowly come together due to gravity. The planets found in these YMGs are called magma ocean planets, a stage of planetary development where the formation is mostly due to large rocks and collisions with smaller planets. This renders the planets extremely hot, with most of the surface existing as molten rock. The planets produce so much heat that they can even be detected by next-generation infra-red telescopes.

The researchers are now using computer simulations to try and understand the origins of these young moving groups.

It is hoped that these findings will help any further research looking into the early development of Earth-like planets. 

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