Water Vapor Seen ‘Raining Down’ on Young Star System

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has detected enough water vapor to fill the oceans on Earth five times inside the collapsing nest of a forming star system. Astronomers say the water vapor is pouring down from the system’s natal cloud and smacking into a dusty disk where planets are thought to form.

The observations provide the first direct look at how water, an essential ingredient for life as we know it, begins to make its way into planets, possibly even rocky ones like our own.

Image right: Spitzer observed a fledgling solar system like the one depicted in this artist’s concept, and discovered deep within it enough water vapor to fill the oceans on Earth five times. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
+ Full image and caption
Related images:
+ Diagram: Steamy solar system
+ Plot of infrared data

“For the first time, we are seeing water being delivered to the region where planets will most likely form,” said Dan Watson of the University of Rochester, N.Y. Watson is the lead author of a paper about this “steamy” young star system, appearing in the Aug. 30 issue of Nature.

The star system, called NGC 1333-IRAS 4B, is still growing inside a cool cocoon of gas and dust. Within this cocoon, circling around the embryonic star, is a burgeoning, warm disk of planet-forming materials. The new Spitzer data indicate that ice from the stellar embryo’s outer cocoon is falling toward the forming star and vaporizing as it hits the disk.

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