Astronomers find the largest known cluster of planetary components orbiting a young star

Astronomers have discovered what they believe is the largest known collection of planet-making ingredients in the universe

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Astronomers have discovered what they believe is the largest known collection of planet-making components orbiting a young star.

This massive disk is about 3,300 times the diameter of the distance between Earth and the Sun, and contains enough gas and dust to form super-large planets in distant orbits, American and German researchers reported this week.

They are so massive and rich in dust and gas, the building blocks of planets, that scientists can learn more about “the birth and evolution of worlds beyond our own,” said lead author Christina Munsch of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

This protoplanetary disk looks like a butterfly in images, according to Munch. She added that the dark, dusty stripe in the middle resembles the long body of a butterfly, while the blue and white lobes look like wings, and the two narrow threads are above the antennae.

The results were described in the Astrophysical Journal Letters published on Monday. Another paper has also been accepted for publication by some of the same researchers.

The disk, called IRAS 23077, is twice the size of the previous record holder, Munch said.

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Munch said NASA’s Hubble and Webb space telescopes may be able to tell if planets the size of Jupiter or larger are already forming. Any rocky planets like ours are likely too small to be seen, and larger planet-forming systems likely exist.

“We just have to look for them,” she said.

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