CNN – Astronomers used the James Webb Space Telescope to observe the first asteroid belt seen outside our solar system and uncovered some cosmic surprises along the way.
The space observatory focused on the warm dust that surrounds Fomalhaut, a bright young star located 25 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Piscis Austrinus.
The dusty disk around Fomalhaut was initially discovered in 1983 using NASA’s infrared astronomical satellite. But the Webb researchers didn’t expect to see three interlocking rings of dust extending 14 billion miles (23 billion kilometers) from the star — or 150 times the distance from Earth to the Sun.
Webb’s new view revealed Fomalhaut’s two inner belts for the first time, which had not been seen in previous images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope or other observatories.
The detailed image of the dust belts, taken in infrared light invisible to the human eye, showed that the structures are more complex than the main asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt in our solar system.
The main asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter, is where remnants of our solar system’s formation orbit the sun. More icy leftovers can be found in the Kuiper Belt at the edge of our solar system, a donut-shaped ring of small celestial bodies and dust beyond Neptune.
The detection of Fomalhaut’s two inner rings revealed that planets hiding deeper within the star system may influence the shape of the dust belt. The Fomalhaut outer belt alone is twice the size of the Kuiper belt. The new image and a detailed study of the findings were published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy.
Gravitational forces form the rings
Fomalhaut’s huge dust belts likely formed from debris left behind when larger bodies such as asteroids and comets collided.
Then, the dust formed into belts through the gravitational influence of what researchers believe are invisible planets orbiting the star, in the same way that Jupiter and Neptune formed the asteroid belt and the inner edge of the Kuiper Belt.
“I would describe Fomalhaut as the archetype for debris disks found elsewhere in our galaxy, because they have similar components to those found in our planetary system,” said study lead author Andras Gaspar, assistant research professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona. In Tucson, in a statement.
“By looking at the patterns in these rings, we can actually begin to draw a small outline of what a planetary system should look like — if we can actually take a picture deep enough to see the suspect planets.”
The combination of Webb’s new observations and images previously taken by Hubble, the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory and the Atacama Large Millimeter/Fulse Telescope Array could give scientists a more detailed view of how debris belts form around stars.
Webb also notices a feature that Gáspár calls the “great dust cloud”, where two orbs may collide in the outer ring. The cloud is separate from another feature that Hubble spied in 2008 that might have been a planet—but additional observations showed that the object had disappeared by 2014, indicating another collision that left nothing but dust in its wake.
Stars are made of gas and dust, and then a ring of leftover material called a protoplanetary disk orbits around the star, where planets are born. The idea for the disk originated from astronomers Immanuel Kant and Pierre Simon Laplace in the late 18th century. Once planets form around a star, debris belts form and are shaped by the planets’ gravity. Within the belts, bodies like asteroids collide with each other and create more debris and dust.
Studying dust belts can help reveal more secrets behind how planetary systems form.
“The belts around Fomalhaut are a kind of mystery novel: Where are the planets?” Study co-author George Rickey, professor of astronomy and planetary sciences at the University of Arizona in Tucson and lead of the science team on the mid-infrared Webb instrument used for the observations, said in a statement. “I think it’s not a very big leap to say that there is probably an interesting planetary system around the star.”
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