Planets, comets, asteroids, and vast clouds of dust fill the space around the star Beta Pictoris in this artist's concept. The system is young, so it is completing the process that gives birth to planets. Beta Pictoris is about 65 light-years from Earth, and is visible to the unaided eye. [NASA/FUSE/Lynette Cook]
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To the eye alone, the stars look pretty much the same. They're not, though -- they come in a staggering range of sizes, masses, and ages. And because they're different ages, the environments around them are different, too.
Consider Beta Pictoris, a star in the constellation Pictor, the painter's easel. If you live in the far-southern United States -- south of about Austin or New Orleans -- it's visible just above the southern horizon this evening, a little to the right or upper right of brilliant Canopus.
The star is about 65 light-years away. It's bigger and heavier than the Sun, and its surface is thousands of degrees hotter. And it's less than one percent as old as the Sun, so it's still encircled by much of the debris left over from its formation.
The debris forms a wide disk around Beta Pictoris. But the disk isn't smooth. Instead, there are big gaps in it, and it's warped like the brim of a hat. That probably means that one or more giant planets inhabit the disk -- born from the disk itself.
In fact, one research team has taken a picture of a possible planet. The planet is probably at least 10 times as massive as Jupiter, the largest planet in our own solar system, and about twice as far from its star. And it's still so hot from its formation that it glows dull red.
The planet and the disk of debris make Beta Pictoris one of the most interesting stars in the sky -- even if it doesn't look the part.
More about extrasolar planets tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010