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Thursday, July 9, 1998 Published at 08:30 GMT 09:30 UK


Star system discovered

The dusty disk around Epsilon Eridani

An international team of astronomers have discovered a ring of dust particles around a nearby star. The findings appears to point to the existence of a solar system very similar to our own. Our science editor Dr David Whitehouse reports.

The ring is strikingly similar to the outer comet zone in our own solar system. It shows an intriguing bright region that may be particles trapped around a young planet.

"What we see looks just like the comet belt on the outskirts of our solar system, only younger," said Jane Greaves, who led the research team.

"It is the first time we've seen anything like this around a star similar to our sun. In addition, we were amazed to see a bright spot in the ring, which may be dust trapped in orbit around a planet."

[ image: Scientists excited by discovery]
Scientists excited by discovery
The observations were made with the James Clerk Maxwell telescope in Hawaii.

Epsilon Eridani is very similar to our sun and is a strong candidate for planets. It is also a star in our local neighbourhood, being only about 10 light years away.

"If an astronomer could have seen what our solar system looked like four billion years ago, it would have been very much as Epsilon Eridani looks today," said Benjamin Zuckerman, professor of physics and astronomy.

"This is a star system very like our own, and the first time anyone has found something that truly resembles our solar system.

"It's one thing to suspect that it exists, but another to actually see it, and this is the first observational evidence."

[ image: The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope]
The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope
A region near the star that is partially evacuated indicates that planets may have formed, the astronomers said.

The presence of planets is the most likely explanation for the absence of dust in this region because planets absorb the dust when they form.

Epsilon Eridani is about three-quarters as massive as the sun, but only one-third as luminous.

In 1960 astronomer Frank Drake conducted the first serious search for radio signals from other civilisations by looking at Epsilon Eridani. No signals were detected.

However, the new image shows there may be at least one planet, and perhaps life.

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