Campus: CSU Fullerton -- May 20, 2005

Physics Professor Explores Space For Clues to How Planets Are Formed

When most of us look up at the evening sky, we see the moon, stars, clouds and an occasional airplane. When Patricia Cheng peers upwards, she sees possibilities. The Cal State Fullerton professor of physics is searching for signs of the possible birth of new planets.

“The solar system has nine planets and only Earth appears to be hospitable,” says the researcher, who has been delving into how planets are formed for more than a decade. “We astronomers are always looking for other planets that can sustain life.”

During a visit to McDonald Observatory in Texas in the fall, Cheng spent five nights in search of planetary “building blocks.” Her research is being funded with nearly $80,000 in recent grants from NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute.

“My goal is to identify stars with the type of gases and dust that show potential for the creation of a planet,“ she said. “I want to see how dust and gases are forming into planets for clues as to how the Earth was created. If we can find a very young planet, we can track it and learn how planets develop.”

She hopes to discover clues to planet formation through studying the dust and gas around other stars, testing a theory that this is how a planet is born. “The further away from a star, gases condense differently. Closer to a star, such as the sun, things are more solid.”

For her research, Cheng needs access to powerful telescopes in space — like those on the Hubble spaceship and the FUSE (Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer) — as well as to ground-based telescopes located throughout the world, including McDonald. Competition among scientists for time on such telescopes is fierce, and when your time comes, you hope the skies are clear. Fortunately, the weather was favorable during Cheng’s visit to the McDonald Observatory, and she returned with raw data.

Media Contacts:
Patricia Cheng at (714) 278-2551 or

Pam McLaren, Public Affairs
(714) 278-4852 or

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