Science & Tech

Suns of all ages possess comets, maybe planets

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It’s likely that planetary systems like our own are common

Astronomers observed a comet puffing out huge amounts of carbon, one of the key elements for life. The comet also emitted large amounts of water vapor as the Sun’s heat baked its outer surface. When combined with previous observations suggesting the presence of evaporating comets near young stars like Beta Pictoris and old stars like CW Leonis, these data show that stars of all ages vaporize comets that swing too close. Those observations also show that planetary systems like our own, complete with a collection of comets, likely are common throughout space. “Now we can draw parallels between a comet close to home and cometary activity surrounding the star Beta Pictoris, which just might have newborn planets orbiting it. If comets are not unique to our Sun, then might not the same be true for Earth-like planets?” asks astronomer Matthew Povich. In early 2003, Comet Kudo-Fujikawa zipped past the Sun at a distance half that of Mercury’s orbit. Povich and John Raymond (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and colleagues studied Kudo-Fujikawa during its close passage to gather their observations and reported their results in the Dec. 12, 2003 issue of the journal Science.