Astronomers were surprised to see a huge jump in fresh dust around the star NGC 2547-ID8. The star is regularly tracked and between August 2012 and January 2013, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope saw a massive influx of fresh dust.
What caused the fresh dust all of a sudden? Asteroids. At least, that’s the theory.
“We think two big asteroids crashed into each other, creating a huge cloud of grains the size of very fine sand, which are now smashing themselves into smithereens and slowly leaking away from the star,” said Huan Meng, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, Tucson and lead author.
What makes today’s news unique is that astronomers have data from before and after the possible asteroid collision. Typically, astronomers are left viewing the aftermath.
The collision of two large asteroids can lead to the formation of planets. NASA describes how an asteroid collision can eventually lead to planets in its press release.
“Rocky planets begin life as dusty material circling around young stars. The material clumps together to form asteroids that ram into each other. Although the asteroids often are destroyed, some grow over time and transform into proto-planets. After about 100 million years, the objects mature into full-grown, terrestrial planets. Our moon is thought to have formed from a giant impact between proto-Earth and a Mars-size object.”
Right now, a thick cloud of small debris orbits the star. Scientists will continue to study the star system and gather data on how asteroid collisions end up forming rocky planets such as our home.
“We are watching rocky planet formation happen right in front of us,” said George Rieke, a University of Arizona co-author of the new study. “This is a unique chance to study this process in near real-time.”
The process takes millions of years so they might want to pull up a chair. The team will continue to use the Spitzer telescope to keep an eye on that star and other stars to see if they can spot another potential asteroid collision.
Image above is an artist concept. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech