Astronomy, Astrophysics and Space Science
Popular writer on the origin and diversity of planetary systems and the formation of stars and brown dwarfs.
"Where do we fit in? How does our solar system stack up against others? It’s a question broader than science, and yet almost within our reach scientifically. The times we live in just happen to be the time in which I can go out and get some partial answers. The frontier is open and you can go out and play."
Brown dwarfs are astronomical objects predicted decades before, but they were not observed until 1994. Now, astronomers know of several hundred brown dwarfs. They are 10 times larger than Jupiter, yet still 100 times smaller than the Sun. They exist in a middle ground between stars and planets, and Jayawardhana wonders how they form.
By looking at hundreds of these “superplanets” at various stages of development and comparing them to models, Jayawardhana hopes that it will become clear whether they form like planets or like stars. Currently it looks like they form like stars, but various models are still being tested.
"As well", he asks "How common are these objects? Are they as common as stars or are they rare?" Answering that question requires a survey of the entire sky that can detect objects with relatively low mass (maybe 2-3 Jupiter masses). Currently Jayawardhana and his team are pursuing such a survey using several ground-based telescopes with adaptive optics.
Jayawardhana is also studying solar system formation. “There was great excitement about finding planets around other stars, but how do they form? We are finding a rich diversity of other objects, but how did this diversity come about and where does ours fit in?” asks Jayawardhana.
Answers to that question may come from looking at the places solar systems and planets form, dust disks. These large halos of dust condense into planets, so in a sense they are the cradle of a planet’s life. However, our Universe is filled with many, many binary or multiple star systems which dramatically disrupt to dust disk. So, Jayawardhana is also looking at how or if planets can form in multiple star systems.
“Are we alone and is our solar system typical or unusual? Those are fairly big questions, and I find it interesting not just as a scientist but as a human being. Is life on earth unique, because it seems that conditions for life are fairly usual, so has life originated elsewhere? As a human being I want to know if life has occurred independently elsewhere, and that has huge implications for all parts of human life. The answer will come from science but the implications are for all humanity.”