We are interested in astrophysical problems related to the origins of solar
systems and the birth of stars. Using primarily techniques of infrared
astronomy, my students, coworkers, and I have studied comets and the
atmospheres of the giant planets. We're now concentrating on the environments
of young stars and the recently discovered extra-solar planetary systems.
Gas and dust orbit many young and intermediate-age stars. Usually this matter
forms a disk or shell surrounding the star. Some disks are almost certainly
birthplaces of new planets, while others appear to be generated by breakup of
comet or asteroid debris. The disks raise many interesting scientific
questions. Is there evidence for planets, or of planet formation, in the disks?
What determines disk structure? What is the disk matter made of? Is it similar
to Solar System material such as the silicates found in comets, asteroids, and
planets? What can extra-solar disks tell us about processes that took place in
the solar system when it formed 4.6 billion years ago?
We observe with telescopes on
Mauna Kea, Hawaii,
Chile, and other observatories. Our research requires the
angular resolution and sensitivity of large telescopes to study structure in
the disks, and to study their composition. Recent results include thermal
infrared observations of the disk surrounding the young (~6 million years old)
star, HR 4796 B, and the similar star, HD 141569. Our research is funded by
grants from NASA.
HD 4796 - Infrared 18 micron image of the disk surrounding the star. Note the
ring-like structure (seen edge-on) that surrounds the center bright region
where the star is.
HR 141569 - Infrared 18-micron contours (thin lines) superimposed on a
NICMOS image (black and white picture). Note that the thermal radiation
(infrared) originates primarily inside the near-infrared ring.
Today, ground-based and space-based research by astronomers around the world is
laying the basis for understanding how solar systems form and evolve. Future
projects and facilities in this field include the
The Space Infrared Telescope Facility (2002),
The Space Interferometer Mission
Next Generation Space Telescope
Terrestrial Planet Finder (~ 2015). These missions
promise to make the coming decades an extraordinary period in the exploration
of planetary systems, the understanding of the origins of solar systems, and
the search for life in the universe.