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'Exocomets' may orbit distant stars

Jan. 8, 2013 at 7:54 PM   |   Comments

BERKELEY, Calif., Jan. 8 (UPI) -- U.S. astronomers say the discovery of six likely comets around distant stars suggests "exocomets" are just as common there as in our own solar system.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and Clarion University in Pennsylvania said massive disks of gas and dust surrounding all the distant stars -- a signature of exoplanets -- suggests comets are also likely inhabitants of these systems.

"This is sort of the missing link in current planetary formation studies," Berkley astronomer Barry Welsh said. "We see dust disks -- presumably the primordial planet-forming material -- around a whole load of stars, and we see planets, but we don't see much of the stuff in between: the asteroid-like planetesimals and the comets."

The six new exocomet systems were discovered between May 2010 and November 2012 using the 2.1-meter telescope of the McDonald Observatory in Texas.

"Now, I think we have nailed it. These exocomets are more common and easier to detect than people previously thought," Welsh said in a Berkeley release Monday.

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