Image: Planets form around a young star in this artist’s concept. Using the Keck Interferometer in Hawaii, astronomers have probed the structure of a dust disk around MWC 419 to within 50 million miles of the star. Credit: David A. Hardy/

The inner regions of young planet-forming disks offer information about how worlds like Earth form, but not a single telescope in the world can see them. Now, for the first time, astronomers using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii have measured the properties of a young solar system at distances closer to the star than Venus is from our sun.

To achieve the feat, the team used the Keck Interferometer to combine infrared light gathered by both of the observatory’s twin 10-meter (98-foot) telescopes, which are separated by 85 meters (93 yards). The double-barreled approach gives astronomers the effective resolution of a single 85-meter telescope — several times larger than any now planned.

“Nothing else in the world provides us with the types of measurements the Keck Interferometer does,” said Wesley Traub of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “In effect, it’s a zoom lens for the Keck telescopes.”

The Keck Interferometer was developed by JPL and the W.M. Keck Observatory. It is managed by the W.M. Keck Observatory, which operates two 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii and is a scientific partnership of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, the University of California and NASA. NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute, also in Pasadena, manages time allocation on the telescope for NASA.

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