The chance discovery of a collection of young red dwarf stars close to our solar system could give astronomers a rare, slow-motion glimpse at planet formation.
Large discs of dust were found around two of the stars, a tell-tale sign of planets in the process of forming, said Astronomers from The Australian National University (ANU) and UNSW Canberra.
“We think the Earth and all the other planets formed from discs like these so it is fascinating to see a potential new solar system evolving,” said lead researcher Dr Simon Murphy, from the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.
“However, other stars of this age usually don’t have discs any more. The red dwarf discs seem to live longer than those of hotter stars like the sun. We don’t understand why.”
The research has been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
The discovery of the objects challenges current theories about planet formation and suggests the process can endure a lot longer than previously thought," said co-author Professor Warrick Lawson from UNSW Canberra.
"I think a lot of telescopes will be turned toward them in the next few years to look for planets,” he said.
The giveaway that the red dwarves had discs around them was an unusual glow in the infrared spectrum of the stars.
The red dwarves may also host planets that have already formed from the dusty discs, Dr Murphy said.
Most of the objects lie in the southern sky and thus are best accessed by telescopes in the southern hemisphere.
Although the discs were not observed directly, Dr Murphy said such close red dwarves offered a good chance of catching a rare direct glimpse of a disc, or even a planet, by employing specialised telescopes.
"Because they are fainter than other stars and there is not as much glare, young red dwarves are ideal places to directly pick out recently formed planets," he said.
Professor Lawson said the ability to detect these dim stars has improved dramatically in recent decades, revealing a wealth of information.
"Less than 20 years ago, the notion that the nearest part of the Galaxy would be littered with young stars was a completely novel one," he said.
Australia has played pivotal roles in space exploration in recent decades, with the Canberra Deep Space Centre recently receiving data from the Pluto fly-by in July.