BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuter) -- New planets may form as routinely as stars do, and recent discoveries of "star nurseries" in the distant universe may help prove it, astronomers said Monday.
Scientists have identified five probable planets in the past year and new technology will help find many more, the researchers told an annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Birmingham.
The orbiting Hubble Space Telescope and other satellites that seek out infrared light invisible to the human eye have looked deeper into the universe than was possible a few years ago.
Robert Thomson of the University of Hertfordshire said in a lecture that planets are forming in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. One was in the constellation of Orion, only 1,200 light years away. A light year is the distance light can travel in a year at 186,000 miles per second.
One of the blobs of light that makes up Orion's "sword" is a candidate for planet formation, he said.
"You have a situation where not only stars are forming but there is leftover dust," he said. "This dust is exactly what astronomers think... formed the planets. That's what we are sitting on... a big ball of dust."
He added: "We are getting a picture that when stars are forming, planets are also forming. They almost go hand-in-hand."
Scientists have been greatly excited by the recent discoveries of what are almost certainly planets orbiting other suns. Many are too hot or too cold to sustain life as we know it, but others could have liquid water on the surface.
Geoffrey Marcy and fellow researchers at San Francisco State University have located three of the new planets.
Invisible to human measurements, it was found by detecting effects on gravity that caused the star it was circling to wobble very, very slightly.
Michael Rowan-Robinson of London's Imperial College of Science and Technology said infrared measurements offered another possibility for spotting such planets.
"It's where we should see brown dwarfs," Rowan-Robinson added, describing the dark, mysterious bodies that are somewhere between a planet and a cool star.
"We are on the brink of a much deeper understanding of the process by which galaxies form and make their first stars and heavy elements, at a time when the universe was at most a few billion years old," he told the lecture audience.
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