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Star & Planet Formation


For centuries, humankind has pondered the origins of the Sun, Earth, moon and our solar system. The discovery of planetary systems around other stars has provided new empirical data that offers insights into the processes of star and planet formation and has reinvigorated the study of star and planet formation. Yet understanding the formation of stars and planets is a formidable challenge. Numerical simulations must span billions of years of planetary evolution, but also capture the propagation of shocks within a fraction of a second as planetesimals collide. Relevant length scales range from the collapse of a giant molecular cloud spanning hundreds of light years to the condensation of gas vapor to form the first solids. Dust enshrouds young planetary systems making direct observations challenging. Penn State researchers lead observational studies of star forming regions, surveys of low-mass stars and brown dwarfs, planets, and theoretical investigations to synthesize the astronomical observations with physical principles.

Areas of Specialty

  • Optical/IR surveys for brown dwarfs (Luhman)
  • IMF of stars and brown dwarfs (Luhman)
  • Impact of environment on planet formation (Feigelson)
  • Orbital Migration (Dawson)
  • Formation of Super-Earths & Mini-Neptunes (Dawson, Ford)
  • Influence of giant planets on formation of rocky planets and super-Earths (Sigurdsson)
  • Late stages of planet formation and long-term orbital evolution of planetary systems (Dawson, Ford)


Faculty Contacts

  • Rebekah Dawson studies how migration can displace giant planets from where they formed, including hot and warm Jupiters, and how the formation conditions of super-Earths and mini-Neptunes establishes the diversity of orbits and compositions we observe today.
  • Eric Feigelson studies the star formation environment, including irradiation of planet forming disks by X-rays, to understand implications for early stages of planet formation.
  • Eric Ford studies the late-stage evolution of planetary systems, including the interaction between protoplanets and the disk of planetessimals, planet-planet interactions and long-term orbital evolution.
  • Kevin Luhman uses optical and infrared telescopes, including the James Webb Space Telescope, to search for brown dwarfs in nearby star-forming regions in order to measure their abundance and the lowest mass at which they can form, which provides a test of theories of star formation.
  • Steinn Sigurdsson studies the formation of planetary systems in a wide variety of contexts, from our solar system to planets around other sun-like stars to planets orbiting pulsars.

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