What scientists had believed was a planet beyond our solar system has now apparently disappeared from sight, a study says, which suggests “that what was heralded as one of the first exoplanets to ever be discovered … likely never existed,” according to the University of Arizona.
The “exoplanet,” a planet outside our solar system, supposedly orbited around Fomalhaut, a star 25 light-years away.
Instead of a planet, which had been named Fomalhaut b, what astronomers likely saw was a large cloud of dust from two icy bodies that had smashed into each other.
“These collisions are exceedingly rare, and so this is a big deal that we actually get to see one,” study lead author András Gáspár of the University of Arizona said in a statement. “We believe that we were at the right place at the right time to have witnessed such an unlikely event with the Hubble Space Telescope.
“Our study, which analyzed all available archival Hubble data on Fomalhaut, revealed several characteristics that together paint a picture that the planet-size object may never have existed in the first place,” Gáspár said.
According to his calculations, the Fomalhaut system may experience one of these events only every 200,000 years.
In 2008, astronomers had reported the discovery of Fomalhaut b, which they said was “the first visible-light snapshot of a planet circling another star,” according to a NASA statement.
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“The Fomalhaut system is the ultimate test lab for all of our ideas about how exoplanets and star systems evolve,” said study co-author George Rieke of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory. “We do have evidence of such collisions in other systems, but none of this magnitude has been observed in our solar system. This is a blueprint of how planets destroy each other.”
The study was published Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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