Nearby Astronauts: Now, See What That Habitable Planet on Pluto Is Looking Like!

Earth may still have star neighbors, but the most distant of these light-breathing orbs have yet to reach us. A robotic spacecraft that just kept on ticking for the past 22 years is now saluting those first stars out there with new color images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA’s Wide Field Camera 3 has just sent back a set of new photos that zoom in on two dusty and massive protoplanets that likely formed way, way back in the cosmic infant days in the universe. Just before our own sun’s birth, more than 70 percent of the stars in the universe burned out. These stars and their protoplanets gradually dissipated and whatever small planets they were compacted formed.

Our solar system is mostly made up of gas and dust, just like the protoplanets. Pluto, a former rock-shaped disc of gas and ice that scientists now think is a frozen chunk of rock, was the closest to the sun yet found in our solar system. [Gallery: Worlds in Transit: Transit of Pluto in Transit of Mars]

When the first stars were born, they built planets of pure hydrogen gas and perhaps smacked one another into each other. Small bits of dust were lofted above and below the initial star. The baby star’s gravity pulled in all the stuff, and left evidence in the form of a lot of leftover gas. [Trace Solar System From the ‘Wonderful Little Circle of Hell’]

It took a while for that dust to accumulate enough mass for it to be completely transported by gravity to a distant planet, as seen from Earth. One set of images from Hubble is just a rough and, according to scientists, incomplete sketch of the dust stored in and around the object we know as K2-110. The object sits more than three light-years away in the constellation of Virgo.

“When two objects settle in such a tight orbit, the material gets mixed to produce a dense cocktail,” study lead author Fabrice Rousseau, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, Ghent University in Belgium, said in a statement. “Think of small chips from an ice cream carton: You want the chips to get smooth, puffy smoothness — not a soggy, lumpy consistency that looks like paint chips floating.”

The Kepler Space Telescope has also detected a minor planet called TRAPPIST-1, which orbits just about as close to its star as Earth orbits the sun. This orbiting dwarf planet is being studied in more detail, with hints of the planets’ composition and atmosphere. But the mass of its smallest planet is only estimated at about 1.5 times that of Jupiter.

Both the TRAPPIST-1 and K2-110 objects were among the most distant worlds in Hubble’s archives, which go back to 2005. These new images allow astronomers to develop a better understanding of just how far away these planets really are, and how much they were probably transported from their initial spot in the massive stars’ structure.

“Our telescopes have been crawling around the galaxy for decades looking for signatures of planets like K2-110 and TRAPPIST-1, and there are still dozens of events that we can track from their origins,” Rousseau said. “There are still some of these objects awaiting discovery, and it’s amazing to see our mapping technique by 2015 was perfect, even 20 years later.”

The new images were detailed in the Astronomical Journal.

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