Most stars form in giant molecular clouds with masses as large as 3 × 106 solar masses. The most well-studied molecular cloud is Orion, where star formation is currently taking place. Molecular clouds typically contain regions of higher density called clumps, which in turn contain several even-denser cores of gas and dust, each of which may become a star. A star can form inside a core if its density is high enough that gravity can overwhelm the internal pressure and cause the gas and dust to collapse. The accumulation of material halts when a protostar develops a strong stellar wind, leading to jets of material being observed coming from the star. These jets of material can collide with the material around the star and produce regions that emit light that are known as Herbig-Haro objects.
The evolution of a star can be described in terms of changes in its temperature and luminosity, which can best be followed by plotting them on an H–R diagram. Protostars generate energy (and internal heat) through gravitational contraction that typically continues for millions of years, until the star reaches the main sequence.
Observational evidence shows that most protostars are surrounded by disks with large-enough diameters and enough mass (as much as 10% that of the Sun) to form planets. After a few million years, the inner part of the disk is cleared of dust, and the disk is then shaped like a donut with the protostar centered in the hole—something that can be explained by the formation of planets in that inner zone. Around a few older stars, we see disks formed from the debris produced when small bodies (comets and asteroids) collide with each other. The distribution of material in the rings of debris disks is probably determined by shepherd planets, just as Saturn’s shepherd moons affect the orbits of the material in its rings. Protoplanets that grow to be 10 times the mass of Earth or bigger while there is still considerable gas in their disk can then capture more of that gas and become giant planets like Jupiter in the solar system.
Several observational techniques have successfully detected planets orbiting other stars. These techniques fall into two general categories—direct and indirect detection. The Doppler and transit techniques are our most powerful indirect tools for finding exoplanets. Some planets are also being found by direct imaging.
Although the Kepler mission is finding thousands of new exoplanets, these are limited to orbital periods of less than 400 days and sizes larger than Mars. Still, we can use the Kepler discoveries to extrapolate the distribution of planets in our Galaxy. The data so far imply that planets like Earth are the most common type of planet, and that there may be 100 billion Earth-size planets around Sun-like stars in the Galaxy. More than 800 planetary systems have been discovered around other stars. In many of them, planets are arranged differently than in our solar system.
The ensemble of exoplanets is incredibly diverse and has led to a revision in our understanding of planet formation that includes the possibility of vigorous, chaotic interactions, with planet migration and scattering. It is possible that the solar system is unusual (and not representative) in how its planets are arranged. Many systems seem to have rocky planets farther inward than we do, for example, and some even have “hot Jupiters” very close to their star. Ambitious space experiments should make it possible to image earthlike planets outside the solar system and even to obtain information about their habitability as we search for life elsewhere.