This artist's illustration shows a planetary disk (left) that weighs the equivalent of 50 Jupiter-mass planets. It demonstrates a first-of-its-kind feat from astronomers using the Herschel space observatory. The scientists were able to weigh the planet-forming contents swirling around a young star with the most precision yet.
Herschel, which sees long-wavelength infrared light, detected a molecule called hydrogen deuteride, which serves as a proxy for the hydrogen gas in the disk. The observations revealed enough gas to make the equivalent of 50 Jupiters.
While astronomers do not know what type of planets this particular disk will make, or whether it will even form planets, the results are an important tool for studying the diversity of planet-forming scenarios.
Herschel is a European Space Agency cornerstone mission, with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes and with important participation by NASA. NASA's Herschel Project Office is based at JPL, which contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel's three science instruments. The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech, supports the United States astronomical community. More information is online at: http://www.herschel.caltech.edu, http://www.nasa.gov/herschel, and http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Herschel/index.html.