New data from the Keck Interferomoter, a tool used by space researchers to observe some 50 stars from 2008 to 2011 using two W.M. Keck Observatory telescopes in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, is being feted as the most accurate assessment to date of the amount of dust and its temperature around distant stars. The information is important to figuring out which stars and planets may support life, with NASA and its partners relying on the data to arrange future missions to these destinations.
Astronomers have been attempting to get clear images of the stars using interferometry, a sophisticated technique that “can be used to block a star’s light,” according to a report on Astronomy.com. To this end, they incorporated the two 10-meter Keck Observatory telescopes to collect and cancel out the light in a process called “nulling.”
Having discovered half of the stars lacked cooler dust in their outer areas, researchers looked at other “mature Sun-like stars … to search for warm room-temperature dust in their habitable zones,” Astronomy.com reported. In the latest study, they reconciled that if a star’s “warm inhabitable zone is also riddled with dust,” it would be a “poor target for exo-Earth imaging.”
Bertrand Mennsson from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., called dust a “double-edge word” for imaging of distant stars and planes and a “signpost for the planet formation process” akin to a construction site.
Researchers’ next task is to get images of planets in the habitable zones around stars, and it may take years to reach. The process is well underway with the latest dust study because it allows astronomers “to better understand how to snap crisp planetary portraits.”