James Webb and Spitzer telescopes find traces of asteroid collision in neighboring star system

June 12, 2024  14:15

Researchers captured the collision of asteroids in the Beta Pictoris system, a neighboring star system known for its early stage of formation and intense planet formation activity.

Observations conducted with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) revealed significant changes in the energy profile of dust around Beta Pictoris compared to observations made by the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2004 and 2005. The research team analyzed the composition and size of dust particles in areas previously studied by Spitzer.

Scientists found that the dust recorded by Spitzer had disappeared, indicating a collision of asteroids and other objects. The collision turned these bodies into fine dust, with particles smaller than pollen or powdered sugar, said Christine Chen, an astronomer from Johns Hopkins University who led the research.

"We believe that all this dust is the residue of what we observed in the 2004 and 2005 data. New JWST data show that we are witnessing the aftermath of a rare and catastrophic event between large asteroid bodies, which has fundamentally changed our understanding of this star system," said Chen.

Initially, the dust near the central star of the system was heated, and its thermal emission was registered by Spitzer’s instruments. However, now that the dust has cooled, moving away from the star, it no longer emits these thermal characteristics.

Chen added that the amount of dust is roughly 100,000 times the size of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs on Earth.

Beta Pictoris is only 20 million years old, a critical period when giant planets are forming, and terrestrial planets are still developing. Researchers hope to determine whether the collision affects larger processes of planet formation in this system.

"The question we are trying to answer is whether this whole process of forming terrestrial and giant planets is common or rare. And an even more fundamental question: how rare are planetary systems like the Solar System?" said study co-author Kadin Worthen, a PhD in astrophysics from Johns Hopkins University.

The research findings were presented at the 244th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Madison, Wisconsin.

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