Proud to be star-struck, physicist Angela Cotera is keen to better understand the chain of events that precede the birth of a star and, at least in some cases, accompanying planets. To this end, she is a team member of NSTARS, a project being pursued on the Spitzer Space Telescope to investigate all stars within 70 light-years of the Sun to see what fraction have protoplanetary disks. This is a straightforward approach to answering a very fundamental question: how often does the formation of stars also produce solar systems?
In addition to her disk studies, Angela also studies such “extreme” stellar environments as large HII regions and the galactic center. The former are mammoth stellar nurseries (think of the Great Nebula in the constellation of Orion), where enormously hot, giant stars are heating the surrounding gas to high temperature. The latter is the inner core of the Milky Way, where the density of stars is millions of times higher than in the neighborhood of our Sun. By investigating these tough galactic neighborhoods, Angela hopes to gain a better understanding of how the formation of planets is governed by nurture as well as nature.