NASA Spitzer Telescope Witnesses Asteroid Smashup

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has spotted an eruption of dust around a young star, possibly the result of a smashup between large asteroids. This type of collision can eventually lead to the formation of planets.

Scientists had been regularly tracking the star, called NGC 2547-ID8, when it surged with a huge amount of fresh dust between August 2012 and January 2013. “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 lead author and graduate student Huan Meng of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

While dusty aftermaths of suspected asteroid collisions have been observed by Spitzer before, this is the first time scientists have collected data before and after a planetary system smashup. The viewing offers a glimpse into the violent process of making rocky planets like ours.

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.

In the new study, Spitzer set its heat-seeking infrared eyes on the dusty star NGC 2547-ID8, which is about 35 million years old and lies 1,200 light-years away in the Vela constellation. Previous observations had already recorded variations in the amount of dust around the star, hinting at possible ongoing asteroid collisions. In hope of witnessing an even larger impact, which is a key step in the birth of a terrestrial planet, the astronomers turned to Spitzer to observe the star regularly. Beginning in May 2012, the telescope began watching the star, sometimes daily.

This artist's concept shows the immediate aftermath of a large asteroid impact around NGC 2547-ID8, a 35-million-year-old sun-like star thought to be forming rocky planets. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

This artist’s concept shows the immediate aftermath of a large asteroid impact around NGC 2547-ID8, a 35-million-year-old sun-like star thought to be forming rocky planets. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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