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Embedded inside one our Galaxy’s spiral arms five billion years ago was a cloud of gas, made up of molecular hydrogen, other light molecules, and fragments of dust smaller than grains of sand. A small part of that cloud was so cold that its own gravity compressed the region, collapsing to form hundreds or thousands of protostars, each surrounded by an envelope of colder gas and dust. Gradually the surrounding material was mixed and pulled in, rotating even more quickly as it fell toward the protostar, conserving angular momentum. While the young star was still growing to its final size, much of the surrounding material coalesced into a relatively flat disk spinning about the central protostar, perhaps ejecting material in tight columns into the ambient medium, creating interstellar shocks that rippled through the gas and dust. Ice crystals brought in water and other molecules from the envelope to the disk in a violent cascade that vaporized much of the incoming material and distributed it around the new circumstellar disk. Planets formed and perhaps were destroyed inside this region. As the envelope stopped funneling additional material to the disk, gas giants formed, influenced by the chemistry in their portion of the circumstellar disk.
This was our own history, as we best we understand it today. We are working to understand the complexities of this time by using the formation of new star and planetary systems in our Galaxy today as a guide to our own past. Through experimentation with space, air, and ground-based telescopes, we strive to understand the process that changes a collapsing cloud of gas and dust into a star and planetary system… and what happens to the material that comprises it.