Webb Provides Insights Into How Planets Are Formed

The Fomalhaut Star SystemInternationalIndiaAfricaThe James Webb Space Telescope was launched in 2021 and began gathering data last year; however, since its launch, the telescope has only continued to impress observers in and outside of the scientific community.New findings by the Webb telescope have revealed three concentric dusty rings of debris around a nearby star that may give insights into how planets are formed during the early stages of solar systems.Fomalhaut is a star that sits right in our cosmic neighborhood, at a relatively close 25 light-years from the sun. One of the brightest stars in our sky, it is roughly 16 times brighter than the sun and nearly twice as large. It is also a relatively young star, at only 440 million years old, less than a tenth of the age of our sun. But as the saying goes, the flame that burns twice as bright burns for half as long. Astronomers estimate it is roughly halfway through its lifespan.The Webb telescope observed three rings of debris around Fomalhaut, the most distant of which had already been discovered in 1983. That ring is similar to our Kuiper belt which sits outside of our outermost planet, Neptune.The other two rings, first observed by Webb and described by scientists for the first time in a study published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy, are something different. One sits closer to the star, though still about 150 times the distance from the Earth to the sun, and is brighter than the other.Scientists suspect that all three belts are filled with planetesimals, material astronomers believe eventually form into planets, whereas remaining material form into asteroids and comets.“Much like our solar system, other planetary systems harbor disks of asteroids and comets – leftover planetesimals from the epoch of planet formation – that continuously grind themselves down to micron-sized particles via collisional interactions,” University of Arizona astronomer Andras Gaspar and lead author of the study said.The Fomalhaut system was once thought to house the first exoplanet observed visually by Webb’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. That object was dubbed Fomalhaut b in 2008 and nicknamed Dagon. However, further observations showed the alleged planet disappeared, leading scientists to conclude what they thought was a planet was a dust cloud that formed when two planetesimals collided.While those hoping to observe an exoplanet were likely disappointed by the revelation, scientists say observing the aftermath of a planetesimal collision is an even rarer event.“There are many open questions about how the dust in these disks coalesces to form planetary embryos, how the planetary atmospheres form, et cetera. Debris disks are remnants of this planet formation process and their structure can provide valuable clues to the underlying planet population and the dynamical histories,” study co-author and astronomer Schuyler Wolff said.While no other planets have been observed in the system, scientists still suspect the belts in the Fomalhaut system were created by the gravitational pull of still undiscovered planets.Both of the asteroid belts in our solar system have planets that help in their formation. The main rocky asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter was formed by Jupiter’s gravitational pull, which NASA believes prevented them from coalescing into a larger single object or joining with other planets.Meanwhile, the Kuiper belt, which is home to dwarf planets Pluto and Eris and other objects, was shaped by the gravitational pull of Neptune.Fomalhaut is the brightest star in the Piscis Austrinus constellation. While it is brightest when observed from the Southern Hemisphere, it is still visible in much of the Northern Hemisphere, shining brightest during the autumn months. It was considered one of four “royal stars” by the ancient Persians.


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