Astronomers using ESA's Herschel Space Observatory have studied a ring of dust around the nearby star Fomalhaut and have deduced that it is created by the collision of thousands of comets every day.
Fomalhaut, a star twice as massive as our Sun and around 25 light years away, has been of keen interest to astronomers for many years. With an age of only a few hundred million years it is a fairly young star, and in the 1980s was shown to be surrounded by relatively large amounts of dust by the IRAS infrared satellite. Now Herschel, with its unprecedented resolution, has produced the best ever far-infrared images of the system. The star itself is surrounded by hot gas and dust, and there is a warm, dusty disc surrounding it as well. But the most interesting feature is a belt of dusty material on the outer edges of the system.
The belt of dust is relatively far from the star itself, at more than 100 times the distance of the Earth from the Sun. This makes it very cold, at around -200 Celsius, with around half of it being made of water ice. "This disc is similar to the Kuiper Belt in our Solar System, which lies beyond the planet Neptune, but is much, much younger," explained Dr Bruce Sibthorpe, of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre. "As well as relatively large objects, such as Pluto, our Kuiper Belt also contains millions of much smaller objects."
The dusty belt around Fomalhaut is confined into a fairly narrow ring and is also off-centre relative to the star, both of which imply that there could be planets orbiting close to it. In 2008 the Hubble Space Telescope provided possible evidence for a planet orbiting within it – though that has yet to be confirmed.
The way that the dust absorbs, emits and scatters the starlight can be used to deduce the size of the grains. The infrared observations with Herschel have found that the dust absorbs light as if it were made of very small grains, just a few thousandths of a millimetre across. Meanwhile the Hubble Space Telescope images indicate that it scatters light in the same way as much larger particles. These two properties are satisfied if the dust grains are "fluffy", being made of small particles loosely stuck together to make larger ones.
A significant problem with such fluffy grains is that the smaller ones should be blown out of the system by the intense light from Fomalhaut itself. The fact that they are present implies that there is a continuous supply of small particles, most likely produced by the continual collisions and disintegration of larger asteroid-sized objects. Such a ring would contain many icy comets, but to produce the amount of dust seen by Herschel requires the equivalent of around 2000 1km sized comets to be destroyed every day.
"I was really surprised," says Dr Bram Acke, at the University of Leuven, Belgium, who led this study. "To me this was an extremely large number." Such a large number of collisions implies that there are trillions of comets in the ring in total, containing enough material to make over one hundred Earths.
"Herschel is the only facility with the capability to study the small dust grains in such high detail, and thereby provide important insights into the on-going activity within the Fomalhaut disc," says Dr Sibthorpe. "These studies are showing us a young Extra-Solar System in unprecedented detail."
The star Fomalhaut and the belt of dust surrounding it, as seen in the far-infrared by the Herschel Space Observatory. The ring of dust is created by the collision of thousands of comets every day. Image credit: ESA/PACS/DEBRIS consortium
Notes for editors
This research is published online: "Herschel Images of Fomalhaut – An extrasolar Kuiper Belt at the height of its dynamical activity," by B. Acke et al (2012) Astronomy & Astrophysics, 540, A125 DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/201118581
Herschel is an ESA space observatory with science instruments provided by European-led Principal Investigator consortia and with important participation from NASA. It was launched in May 2009. This work uses the SPIRE and PACS instruments.
The SPIRE instrument contains an imaging photometer (camera) and an imaging spectrometer. The camera operates in three wavelength bands centred on 250, 350 and 500 μm, and so can make images of the sky simultaneously in three sub-millimetre colours. The SPIRE instrument has been built, assembled and tested in the UK at The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire by an international consortium from Europe, US, Canada and China, with strong support from the Science and Technology Facilities Council.
SPIRE has been developed by a consortium of institutes led by Cardiff Univ. (UK) and including: Univ. Lethbridge (Canada); NAOC (China); CEA, LAM (France); IFSI, Univ. Padua (Italy); IAC (Spain); Stockholm Observatory (Sweden); Imperial College London, RAL, UCL-MSSL, UKATC, Univ. Sussex (UK); and Caltech, JPL, NHSC, Univ. Colorado (USA). This development has been supported by national funding agencies: CSA (Canada); NAOC (China); CEA, CNES, CNRS (France); ASI (Italy); MCINN (Spain); SNSB (Sweden); STFC, UKSA (UK); and NASA (USA).
PACS is also an imaging photometer (camera) and an imaging spectrometer. The camera operates in three bands centred on 70, 100, and 160 μm, respectively. PACS has been developed by a consortium of institutes led by MPE (Germany) and including UVIE (Austria); KUL, CSL, IMEC (Belgium); CEA, OAMP (France); MPIA (Germany); IFSI, OAP/AOT, OAA/CAISMI, LENS, SISSA (Italy); IAC (Spain). This development has been supported by the funding agencies BMVIT (Austria), ESA- PRODEX (Belgium), CEA/CNES (France), DLR (Germany), ASI (Italy), and CICT/MCT (Spain).
UK Space Agency
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Dr Bruce Sibthorpe
UK Astronomy Technology Centre
Royal Observatory Edinburgh
Tel: +44 (0)7956 619 394
Prof Mike Barlow
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University College London
Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 7160
Dr Bram Acke
University of Leuven
Tel: +32 (0)16 327 939
Dr Chris North
UK Herschel Outreach Officer
School of Physics and Astronomy
Tel: +44 (0)2920 870 537
UK Space Agency
Tel: +44 (0)1793 418069