This animation portrays an artist's concept of a distant hypothetical solar system, about the same age as our own. It begins close to the star, and then moves out past a number of planets. Though "extrasolar" planets are too small to be seen with telescopes, astronomers have detected more than 100 gas giants like Jupiter via their gravitational tug on their parent stars.
The view pulls back to reveal the outer fringes of the system and a ring of dusty debris that circles the star. This debris is all that remains of the planet-forming disc from which the planets evolved.
Planets are formed when dusty material in a large disc surrounding a young star clumps together. Leftover material is eventually blown out by solar wind or pushed out by gravitational interactions with planets. Billions of years later, only an outer disc of debris remains.
These outer debris discs are too faint to be imaged directly by visible-light telescopes. They are washed out by the glare of the Sun. However, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope can detect their heat, or excess thermal emission, in infrared light. This allows astronomers to study the aftermath of planet building in distant solar systems like our own.
Animation Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle/ssc
Publication: December 9, 2004