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Published on January 10th, 2013 | by James Ayre

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Zombie Planet Fomalhaut b Following Bizarre Orbit, Researchers Find

The already strange star system of Fomalhaut has gotten even stranger. The discovered, then undiscovered, then rediscovered ‘zombie’ planet, Fomalhaut b, has been found to follow a very strange orbit around its star, and is moving through a vast debris disc surrounding the star. The researchers think that this evidence when taken together is evidence of a massive planetary impact within the very recent past.

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The new research was based on new images taken by NASA’s Hubble Telescope. Using these images, the researchers found, to their surprise, that the debris belt that encircles the star is much wider than they previously estimated. It spans “a section of space from 14 to nearly 20 billion miles from the star. Even more surprisingly, the latest Hubble images have allowed a team of astronomers to calculate the planet follows an unusual elliptical orbit that carries it on a potentially destructive path through the vast dust ring.”

The exoplanet, dubbed Fomalhaut b, gets within 4.6 billion miles of its star while following its strange orbit, and then shoots out from the star over 27 billion miles.


“We are shocked. This is not what we expected,” said Paul Kalas of the University of California at Berkeley and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif.

“The Fomalhaut team led by Kalas considers this circumstantial evidence there may be other planet-like bodies in the system that gravitationally disturbed Fomalhaut b to place it in such a highly eccentric orbit. The team presented its finding Tuesday at the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, Calif.”

“Among several scenarios to explain Fomalhaut b’s 2,000-year-long orbit is the hypothesis that an as yet undiscovered planet gravitationally ejected Fomalhaut b from a position closer to the star, and sent it flying in an orbit that extends beyond the dust belt.”

“Hot Jupiters get tossed through scattering events, where one planet goes in and one gets thrown out,” said co-investigator Mark Clampin of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “This could be the planet that gets thrown out.”

“Hubble also found the dust and ice belt encircling the star Fomalhaut has an apparent gap slicing across the belt. This might have been carved by another undetected planet. Hubble’s exquisite view of the dust belt shows irregularities that strongly motivate a search for other planets in the system.”

“If its orbit lies in the same plane with the dust belt, then Fomalhaut b will intersect the belt around 2032 on the outbound leg of its orbit. During the crossing, icy and rocky debris in the belt could crash into the planet’s atmosphere and create the type of cosmic fireworks seen when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter. Most of the fireworks from collisions will be seen in infrared light. However, if Fomalhaut b is not co-planar with the belt, the only thing to be seen will be a gradual dimming of Fomalhaut b as it travels farther from the star.”

“Kalas hypothesized that Fomalhaut b’s extreme orbit is a major clue in explaining why the planet is unusually bright in visible light, but very dim in infrared light. It is possible the planet’s optical brightness originates from a ring or shroud of dust around the planet, which reflects starlight. The dust would be rapidly produced by satellites orbiting the planet, which would suffer extreme erosion by impacts and gravitational stirring when Fomalhaut b enters into the planetary system after a millennium of deep freeze beyond the main belt. An analogy can be found by looking at Saturn, which has a tenuous, but very large dust ring produced when meteoroids hit the outer moon Phoebe.”

“The team has also considered a different scenario where a hypothetical second dwarf planet suffered a catastrophic collision with Fomalhaut b. The collision scenario would explain why the star Fomalhaut has a narrow outer belt linked to an extreme planet. But in this case the belt is young, less than 10,000 years old, and it is difficult to produce energetic collisions far from the star in such young systems.”

“Fomalhaut is a special system because it looks like scientists may have a snapshot of what our solar system was doing 4 billion years ago. The planetary architecture is being redrawn, the comet belts are evolving, and planets may be gaining and losing their moons. Astronomers will continue monitoring Fomalhaut b for decades to come because they may have a chance to observe a planet entering an icy debris belt that is like the Kuiper Belt at the fringe of our own solar system.”

Fomalhaut b actually shows, very well, an example of the types of events that may lead to planets being ejected from their star systems. Such ‘rogue’ planets are thought to be extremely abundant throughout the universe and the larger ones are even theorized to be capable of sustaining life. Recently a rogue planet only 100 light years away was discovered, conceivably close enough to one day send a probe too.

Source: Space Telescope Science Institute

Image Credits: NASA, ESA, and P. Kalas (University of California, Berkeley and SETI Institute)




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About the Author

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.



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