It's 3 million years old and 2,400 light years
away, but a distant star discovered by Wesleyan researchers has given
insight into how our solar system may have formed. NASA wants to know
more, and has given William Herbst almost a quarter of a million dollars
to keep looking.
This month NASA (the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration) awarded Wesleyan Professor of Astronomy William
Herbst a $216,000 grant to continue his studies of the star, KH 15D, and
other emerging stars and their possible link to the creation of our solar
The grant for Herbst's proposal titled
"Synoptic Studies of T Tauri Stars in Nearby Clusters and Associations"
will span three years. It was approved by NASA's Origins of Solar Systems
Program and is one of only 39 proposals of the 94 submitted that received
"NASA is particularly interested in this work
because they want to find planets that may support life," says Herbst, the
Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy, chair of the Astronomy Department and
director of the Van Vleck Observatory. "As far as we know, life can only
get started on a planet. Understanding how these types of planets form can
help us pinpoint where they may exist and when the conditions for the
creation of life first occur."
Three years ago, Herbst reported how KH 15D, a
star in the constellation Monoceros that he and graduate student Kristin
Kearns discovered, and that physics Ph.D. candidate Catrina Hamilton
further helped identify, seemed to displaying the early stages of planet
formation. KH 15D was periodically going through "winking" eclipses,
determined by Herbst to be he swirling waves of rock and dust clouds
typical of early planet formation. The discovery sent excitement through
the astronomical community. He continues to study KH 15D and other young
stars looking for more clues.
"Wesleyan has been recognized as a world
leader in monitoring these young stars," Herbst says proudly. "And we are
able to do many of our observations using our own observatory on campus."
Herbst also notes that in the awarding of the
grant, the officials at NASA went out of their way to applaud the way
undergraduates have been involved in the studies. Specifically, the
reports says Herbst "is to be commended for his extensive work in student
training, where he has done a first rate job in engaging undergraduates in
research and launching them along productive career paths."
"Involving undergraduates in the research is
not required for the grant. In fact it's pretty atypical for this level of
research," Herbst says, then smiles. "But it is what we do here at
Wesleyan. I was glad NASA made note of it. It's a part of our program that
we are very proud of."