June 23, 2024

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Astronomers detect a catastrophic collision of giant asteroids in a nearby star system

Astronomers detect a catastrophic collision of giant asteroids in a nearby star system

Nearly 20 years ago, astronomers observed a huge cloud of fine dust particles around a young star located just 63 light-years from Earth. In the last notes of Webb Space TelescopeHowever, the dust cloud mysteriously disappeared. Now, a new research paper suggests that the dust cloud may have been caused by a violent event that crushed large celestial bodies and spread their remains across the planet. Beta Pictoris star system.

Using new data from Webb, a group of scientists has observed significant changes in the energy signatures emitted by dust grains around Beta Pictoris, with the particles disappearing completely. By comparing Webb’s data to older observations I took Spitzer Space Telescope In 2004 and 2005, scientists suggest that a catastrophic collision between large asteroids occurred about 20 years ago, breaking up the celestial bodies into fine dust particles smaller than powdered sugar. The dust likely cooled as it moved away from the star, which is why it no longer emits the same thermal features that Spitzer first observed. The new results were presented Monday during the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Madison, Wisconsin.

Christine Chen, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University, first observed Beta picturis in 2004 using the Spitzer Space Telescope. The young star system is home to the first debris disk imaged around another star, and is notable for being close and bright.

When Chen was given 12 hours of observations with Webb, she wanted to go back and look at the same star system, Beta Pictoris, that had interested her all those years. But this time, the star system didn’t look quite so familiar. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, the features are gone,'” Chen told Gizmodo. “Is this real? And if so, what happened?”

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Through Webb’s observations, Chen, who led the new study, and her team focused on heat emanating from crystalline silicates — minerals typically found around young stars — and found no traces of particles previously seen in 2004 and 2005.

“When astronomers look at the sky and see something, we always assume that everything is in a stable state, that it is not changing,” Chen said. “The reason we think that is because if you think about the specific moment you’re looking at, it’s very short compared to the lifespan of these objects, so we think the chances of capturing anything interesting are very slim.”

This appears to not have been the case for Beta Picturis, a star system believed to be 20 to 26 million years old. This is relatively young compared to our solar system, which is about 4.6 billion years old. During their early years, star systems are unpredictable, with terrestrial planets still being formed by giant asteroid collisions.

Therefore, the changes observed in Beta pictoris were rather large. The dust cloud was 100,000 times larger than the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, according to astronomers. This suggests that the impact that may have caused the formation of this massive cloud was likely associated with a VistaIt is the second largest massive object in the main asteroid belt, which extends across 329 miles (530 kilometers) in diameter.

Illustration of the difference in data collected by Spitzer and Webb 20 years apart.

Illustration of the difference in data collected by Spitzer and Webb 20 years apart.
clarification: Roberto Moller Candanosa/Johns Hopkins University, with Beta Pictures concept art by Lynette Cook/NASA

The dust was then dispersed outward by the star’s radiation, heating the dust near the star and emitting thermal radiation that was identified by Spitzer’s instruments. Webb’s new observations revealed that the dust had disappeared and not been replaced, indicating a violent collision had occurred.

“We believe that large impacts like these must have occurred in our solar system when it was of a similar age as part of the terrestrial planet formation process,” Chen said. “We can look at the ancient terrestrial surfaces of the Moon, Mars and Mercury, and they all have craters, which tells us that impacts were more frequent when our solar system was young.”

With recent observations of Beta Pictoris, scientists can explore whether the formation process that shaped our solar system is rare or more frequent throughout the universe, and how these early collisions affect the habitability of a particular star system.

“If there was this giant collision and there was a dust cloud spreading outward from the star,” Chen said. “You can imagine that there is some possibility that this dust cloud, as it moved into the planetary system, also encountered planets, and could have rained dust onto their planetary atmospheres.”

more: Beyond the Planets: The Strange Underdogs of the Solar System