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The Webb telescope discovers evidence of hidden planets around a nearby star

The Webb telescope discovers evidence of hidden planets around a nearby star

(CNN) – Astronomers have used the James Webb Space Telescope to observe the first asteroid belt seen outside our solar system, revealing some cosmic surprises along the way.

The space observatory focused on the hot dust surrounding Fomalhaut, a bright young star located 25 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Piscis Austrinus.

The dusty disk surrounding Fomalhaut was first discovered in 1983 using NASA’s infrared astronomical satellite. But Webb’s researchers didn’t expect to see three overlapping dust rings extending 23 billion kilometers from the star, or 150 times the distance from Earth to the Sun.

Webb’s new view revealed for the first time Fomalhaut’s two inner belts, which were not visible in previous images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope or other observatories.

The detailed image of the dust belts, taken in infrared light invisible to the human eye, showed that the structures are more complex than the main asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt in our solar system.

The main asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter, is where debris from the formation of our solar system orbits the sun. In the Kuiper Belt, located in the outer reaches of our solar system, there is even more icy debris: a ring donut—a picture of small celestial bodies and dust beyond Neptune.

The detection of Fomalhaut’s two inner rings indicates that planets lurking deep in the star system may influence the shape of the dust belt. The outer Fomalhaut belt alone is twice the size of the Kuiper belt. The new image and a detailed study of the findings were published in the journal Monday natural astronomy.

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Gravitational forces form the rings

Fomalhaut’s massive dust belts may have formed from debris left over from collisions of larger bodies, such as asteroids and comets.

Then, the gravitational influence of what researchers believe are invisible planets orbiting the star formed the dust belts, just as Jupiter and Neptune formed the asteroid belt and the inner edge of the asteroid belt.

“I would describe Fomalhaut as the typical debris disk found elsewhere in our galaxy, because it has similar components to what we have in our planetary system,” said study lead author András Gáspár, assistant professor of astronomy. Arizona in Tucson, in a statement.

“By looking at the patterns in these rings, we can begin to draw a small outline of what a planetary system might look like, if we can actually take a picture deep enough to see the putative planets.”

An annotated image of the Fomalhaut system reveals different compositions in the three dust belts around the star. (Source: NASA / ESA / CSA / A. Pagan / A. Gáspár)

The combination of Webb’s new observation with images taken previously by Hubble, the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/Subarray Array may give scientists a more detailed look at how rocks and debris belts form around stars.

Webb also notes a feature that Gáspár calls the “great dust cloud”, where two orbs can collide in the outer ring. The cloud is separate from another cloud discovered by Hubble in 2008 that could be a planet, but subsequent observations showed that the object disappeared in 2014, indicating another collision that left nothing but dust in its wake.

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Stars are made of gas and dust, and then a ring of leftover material called a protoplanetary disk rotates around the star, where planets are born. The idea for the disk came from astronomers Immanuel Kant and Pierre Simon Laplace in the late 18th century. Once planets form around a star, debris belts formed by the planets’ gravity form. Within the belts, things like asteroids collide with each other and produce more debris and dust.

Studying dust belts can help reveal more secrets about the formation of planetary systems.

“The belts around Fomalhaut are kind of a mystery: Where are the planets?” George Rickey, study co-author, professor of astronomy and planetary sciences at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and lead of the team, said in a statement. A scientist from the mid-infrared web instrument used in the observations. “I think it’s not too big of a leap to say there might be a really interesting planetary system around the star.”