Newly discovered red dwarf stars could unlock secrets of planet formation
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Newly discovered red dwarf stars could unlock secrets of planet formation

A "serendipitous discovery" only 400 light years from Earth could challenge current theories on how planets form and even allow future astronomers to witness the birth of a solar system.

An unusual glow in the infrared spectrum of two young red dwarf stars in the Southern Cross and Centaurus constellations led astronomers from the Australian National University and UNSW Canberra to discover large discs of dust surrounding the stars.

An artist’s depiction of a dusty "circumstellar" disc orbiting a young red dwarf star.

An artist’s depiction of a dusty "circumstellar" disc orbiting a young red dwarf star.

These discs contained the raw materials from which planets formed, lead researcher Dr Simon Murphy, from ANU's Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, said.

"We didn't really expect to find them, we were actually searching for stars belonging to a completely different young group and by pure luck we stumbled across this group of interesting stars," Dr Murphy said.

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Circumstellar discs of dust and debris are born with a star and often disappear within millions years.

"Some of the dust and gas goes to form planets, some of it's accreted onto the star and some of it's blown away from the system by the star," Dr Murphy said.

"Usually by 10 million years old, discs are very rare around stars because the planets have already formed."

Dr Murphy said the stars his team found are believed to be about 16 million years old, hence their surprise.

It could be that these stars are much younger than the cluster around them but Dr Murphy believes it is evidence that dust discs linger longer around lower-mass stars.

It could also mean planets take longer to form around red dwarf stars.

"It's pretty rare to find these objects so close and so young," Dr Murphy said.

"These stars can potentially tell us a lot about how planets like the Earth have formed but also how planets could form around stars a little different to the sun.

"Red dwarfs are the most common star in the galaxy so potentially if we were to find planets and life it would probably be around a red dwarf star."

Co-author Professor Warrick Lawson, of UNSW Canberra, said the stars' age and proximity to Earth made the cluster an ideal hunting ground for recently formed gas giant planets.

"Most of these objects lie in the southern sky and thus are best accessed by telescopes in the southern hemisphere, including those operated by ANU and Australia more broadly," Professor Lawson said.

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.

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