U physicist looking for signs of life out in space

Apparently, Goldilocks had the right idea.

Physicist Ben Bromley hopes that by studying the dust that forms around stars, he can locate planets similar to Earth.

The Earth-like planets, he said, form in areas “not too hot and not too cold.”

Finding other Earths, Bromley said, could lead to the discovery of other life forms and may help scientists understand the formation of our own solar system.

Bromley, with collaborator Scott Kenyon from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, studies the dust that orbits distant stars.

The dust is caused by residual particles that are put into motion by the gravitational pull of larger formations.

The particles crash into each other and shatter, leaving behind a cloud of dust.

The larger formations, instead of shattering, collect together to form planets.

The dust glows a different color from its host star when viewed using infrared light. Bromley uses information from the Spitzer Space Telescope to capture and document the dust images.

Scientists haven’t actually seen planets yet, however. Technology needs to be further developed-which Bromley hopes will happen in the next 15 years-before scientists can see the planets. Bromley said he and other scientists can only guess, through the formation of dust and the “wobbling” of the host star, that planets are forming.

Large planets, similar to Jupiter in our solar system, are so big that they can pull a star out of its original path, causing it to “wobble.” When scientists record this movement, they can “infer the presence” of planet formations, Bromley said.

Earth-like planets should form under the same circumstances as Earth.

They’ll be the same distance from the host star, they’ll have the same “rocky” formations and they’ll be the same size, Bromley said.

And just locating the Earths isn’t enough, he said.

Scientists will have to study what the planets are made of and try to detect whether or not the planet has the “building-block chemicals of life” such as methane gas.

“This is when we’re going to find out if we have company or not,” he said.

But that is only if the larger planets don’t consume the Earths into their gravitational pull. The larger formations can “eat up everything around them,” Bromley said.

“It’s a lot like life,” he said. “The bigger you are, the more you acquire.”

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