Scientists Discover Massive Asteroid Collision – in Another Solar System - Latest Global News

Scientists Discover Massive Asteroid Collision – in Another Solar System

In a distant solar system, giant asteroids collided, kicking up 100,000 times more dust than the impact on Earth that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

This massive space event occurred in Beta Pictoris, a system 63 light-years away. Beta Pictoris is known for its two gas giants and is considered a place where rocky worlds could develop. Using the powerful James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers found that large amounts of mineral dust in the system, observed two decades ago with another instrument, had largely dispersed – telltale signs of giant asteroids colliding.

“The best explanation we have with Webb’s new data is that we have actually witnessed the aftermath of a rare, cataclysmic event between large asteroid-sized bodies, completely transforming our understanding of this star system,” Christine Chen, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University who led the research, said in a statement. The new planetary science findings were presented at the 244th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

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Our solar system is a much older, more mature place than Beta Pictoris, without the tumult that occurs in younger systems when asteroids or larger planetary bodies often collide and sometimes condense (though collisions still happen here, of course). Beta Pictoris is about 20 million years old, while our diverse solar system is 4.5 billion years old. Yet observing the formation of such a distant system gives us insights into our cosmic home. For example, is it normal for solar systems to form both gas giants and smaller rocky worlds (like Earth or a super-Earth)?

“We’re basically trying to understand how weird or average we are,” Kadin Worthen, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University who was involved in the new research, said in a statement.

“We’re basically trying to understand how weird or average we are.”

The graphic below shows how a predecessor to the Webb telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, detected huge clouds of rocky dust in 2004 and 2005—evidence of two massive collisions—but Webb couldn’t find any. The small dust minerals, finer than powdered sugar, had dissipated by 2023.

The Spitzer Space Telescope discovered dust clouds in Beta Pictoris twenty years ago. These have probably dissipated since then.
Photo credit: ROBERTO MOLAR CANDANOSA / JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY. BETA PICTORIS CONCEPTUAL ART: LYNETTE COOK / NASA

Both the Spitzer and Webb telescopes were designed to figure out how objects emit a type of light we can’t see: infrared. Objects in space often emit this radiation, so Spitzer had no problem detecting those significant changes in Beta Pictoris twenty years ago – while Webb can now clearly see the newest cosmic environments many light-years away.

Beta Pictoris – we are watching you.

Mashable Speed ​​of Light

An artist's impression of colliding objects in the distant solar system Beta Pictoris.

An artist’s impression of colliding objects in the distant solar system Beta Pictoris.
Photo credit: Johns Hopkins University

The powerful capabilities of the Webb telescope

The Webb telescope – a scientific collaboration between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency – is designed to look into the deepest depths of the cosmos and provide new insights into the early universe. It also keeps an eye on fascinating planets in our galaxy, as well as the planets and moons in our solar system.

This is how Webb achieves unprecedented feats and will likely continue to do so for decades to come:

– Giant mirror: Webb’s mirror, which captures light, is over 21 feet in diameter. That’s over two and a half times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror. The greater amount of light allows Webb to see more distant, ancient objects. As described above, the telescope is looking at stars and galaxies that formed over 13 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

“We will see the very first stars and galaxies ever formed,” Jean Creighton, astronomer and director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, told Mashable in 2021.

– Infrared view: Unlike the Hubble telescope, which sees primarily light that we can see, Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, meaning it sees light in the infrared spectrum. This allows us to see a much larger portion of the universe. Infrared has longer wavelengths than visible light, so the light waves pass through cosmic clouds more efficiently; the light doesn’t collide with or scatter as often as these densely packed particles. Ultimately, Webb’s infrared vision can reach places that the Hubble can’t.

“It lifts the veil,” Creighton said.

– A look into distant exoplanets: As mentioned above, the Webb telescope carries special devices called spectrographs this will revolutionize our understanding of these distant worlds. The instruments can decipher which molecules (such as water, carbon dioxide and methane) are present in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets – be they gas giants or smaller rocky worlds. Webb will look at exoplanets in the Milky Way. Who knows what we will find?

“We might learn things we never thought of,” Mercedes López-Morales, an exoplanet researcher and astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics-Harvard & Smithsonian, told Mashable in 2021.

Astronomers have already succeeded in discovering fascinating chemical reactions on a planet 700 light-years away, and as described above, the observatory has begun to target one of the most eagerly awaited places in the cosmos: the rocky, Earth-sized planets of the TRAPPIST solar system.

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