Back in 2014, an alleged exoplanet that was bright and vivid since 2004 mysteriously vanished. Now a new research reveals that the exoplanet wasn’t an exoplanet at all, but just a big cloud of asteroid trash, which explains how it was able to “disappear.”
Sometime back in 2004 and 2006, astronomers discovered one of the first exoplanets visible via the Hubble Space Telescope of NASA. Nicknamed Fomalhaut b, the distant world is located a neighborly 25 light-years from Earth and appeared as a bright, cool dot that briskly moved about our night sky, which is normal for an exoplanet. And so it moved and moved until a decade later, when it suddenly vanished.
Naturally, this piqued the curiosity of astronomers and led to questions like: What happened to Fomalhaut b? Did it drift away from its own star? Was it the victim of planet-on-planet violence?
What astronomers didn’t know at the time is that like any good detective story worth its salt, this mystery ends with a twist ending. This is because on Monday, a new study revealed why the exoplanet was able to perform its celestial vanishing act: for the simple fact that it wasn’t an exoplanet in the first place.
Per the study results, which were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Fomalhaut b might have vanished from Hubble’s eyes because it was nothing more than a colossal cloud of icy debris that came as the result of a past, violent collision between what are essentially two planetary fragments.
Per the team, this proposed collision might have happened shortly before Hubble first caught sight of Fomalhaut b, at the time when the expanding cloud of dust particles was still densely concentrated. By 2014, the cloud had then diffused enough to disappear.
“These collisions are exceedingly rare and so this is a big deal that we actually get to see evidence of one. We believe that we were at the right place at the right time to have witnessed such an unlikely event with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope,” Andras Gaspar, lead study author, said.