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Nearby Star’s Icy Debris Suggests ‘Shepherd’ Planet


An international team of astronomers exploring the disk of gas and dust around a nearby star have uncovered a compact cloud of poisonous gas formed by ongoing rapid-fire collisions among a swarm of icy, comet-like bodies. The researchers suggest the comet swarm is either the remnant of a crash between two icy worlds the size of Mars or frozen debris trapped and concentrated by the gravity of an as-yet-unseen planet.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the researchers mapped millimeter-wavelength light from dust and carbon monoxide (CO) molecules in a disk surrounding the bright star Beta Pictoris. Located about 63 light-years away and only 20 million years old, the star hosts one of the closest, brightest and youngest debris disks known, making it an ideal laboratory for studying the early development of planetary systems.

“Although toxic to us, carbon monoxide is one of many gases found in comets and other icy bodies,” said team member Aki Roberge, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “In the rough-and-tumble environment around a young star, these objects frequently collide and generate fragments that release dust, icy grains and stored gases.”

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