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Hubble Reveals First Direct Evidence of Planet Formation

THE WASHINGTON POST

Astronomers have seen the first direct evidence of the birth of a planet in the form of snowballing dust grains, helping to confirm the theoretical scenario for how Earth and the other planets formed around the infant sun.

Related observations suggest that the process of planet formation is so hazardous that planets may be rarer than many researchers had thought.

The findings, announced Thursday by a team using the Hubble Space Telescope, portray a life-or-death struggle for survival by baby planets forming in a giant cloud of gas and dust in the vast Orion Nebula, 1,500 light-years from Earth.

If the planetary seedlings don’t grow rapidly enough, the researchers said, they get “blowtorched” to oblivion by a relentless blast of radiation from the nebula’s largest star, Theta 1 Orionis C, which is visible through a small telescope in a formation known as the Trapezium cluster.

In findings released by the journal Science, a team led by John Bally of the University of Colorado in Boulder, and Henry Throop of the Southwest Research Institute there, used the Hubble telescope to detect the building blocks of planets as they formed inside the million-year-old dusty disks whirling around dozens of stars in the nebula, which is the closest star nursery to Earth.

Government Limits Electricity Prices in California

THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON

A divided Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Wednesday approved restraints on the sharp electricity price spikes expected this summer in power-starved California, but it stopped far short of what state officials had called for.

On a 2 to 1 vote, reached after a full day of closed-door debate, the commission voted to establish a single benchmark price for wholesale electricity sold in California on days when emergency power shortages are declared.

Wednesday’s action may provide more fodder for a running debate among California officials and the Bush administration over whether to impose hard price gaps on electricity prices. FERC Chairman Curt Hebert Jr. and President Bush have rejected price caps. But FERC commissioner William Massey, who dissented from Wednesday’s vote, said the failure to impose caps leaves the state vulnerable to another siege of escalating prices.

The benchmark price would be based on the power-production costs of the least efficient -- and thus most expensive -- generator whose power is needed that day. All generators who bid at or below that price would be entitled to receive it.