New pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope are giving astronomers a look at what may be the formative stages of planets.
While the pictures don't actually show planets, NASA says they give us a good look at disks of dust that circle young stars. Scientists believe that as stars age, this dust condenses to form planets. The disks observed are enormous, as much as 16-times the size of Neptune's orbit around our Sun.
The new images may be offering a glimpse of what our own solar system looked like 4.5 billion years ago when the Earth and other planets began to condense.
"While the existence of these disks has been known from prior infrared and radio observations, the Hubble images reveal important new details such as a disk's size, shape, thickness and orientation," says Deborah Padgett of the California Institute of Technology.
Her group used the orbiting telescope's cameras to look at six young stars in the constellation Taurus, 450 light years away. A light-year represents the distance light travels in a single year, approximately 6 trillion miles.
Padgett says the images "show dark clumps and bright streamers above and below the dust lanes, suggesting that raw material is still falling into these disks and driving outflowing jets of gas from the forming stars." said in a statement.
Within the disk, tiny dust particles settle eventually sticking together with other particles and finally forming large bodies. Those bodies may turn out to be rocky, terrestrial planets like Earth or gaseous giants like Jupiter.
Over the course of about 10 million years, the gravity of the newly formed planets clears the dust out of the disk's inner region closest to the star, and a solar system is born.