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Physics Professor Explores Space For Clues to How Planets are Formed
Professor of physics searches for signs of possible birth of new planets

By Pamela McLaren
February 17, 2005

When most of us look up at the evening sky, we see the moon, stars, sometimes clouds and an occasional airplane.

When Patricia Cheng peers upwards, she sees possibilities. The professor of physics is searching for the signs of the possible birth of new planets.

“The solar system has nine planets and only Earth appears to be hospitable,” says the researcher, who has been delving into how planets are formed for more than a decade. “We astronomers are always looking for other planets that can sustain life.”

Cheng recently returned from McDonald Observatory in Texas where she spent her time in search of planetary “building blocks.” Cheng's research is being funded with nearly $80,000 in recent grants from NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute.

“My goal is to identify stars with the type of gases and dust that show potential for the creation of a planet. I want to see how dust and gases are forming into planets for clues as to how the Earth was created. If we can find a very young planet, we can track it and learn how planets develop,” says Cheng.

She hopes to discover clues to planet formation through studying the dust and gas around other stars – testing a theory that this is how a planet is born. “The further away from a star, gases condense differently. Closer to a star, such as the sun, things are more solid.”

For her research Cheng needs to have access to powerful telescopes in space – like those on the Hubble spaceship and the FUSE (Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer) – as well as to ground-based telescopes located throughout the world, including McDonald. Getting time on a telescope is very competitive, she notes, and when your time comes, you hope that the skies are clear.

Fortunately, the weather was good during Cheng's visit to the McDonald Observatory. She is currently processing and testing the data she gathered.

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