Vanishing Space Dust Baffles Astronomers

By Chelsea Whyte on July 5, 2012 10:40 PM EDT

space dust
Artist's conceptualization of the dusty TYC 8241 2652 system as it might have appeared several years ago when it was emitting large amounts of excess infrared radiation. (Photo: Gemini Observatory/AURA artwor)

It's not every day that you hear "Abracadabra!" when you're talking astronomy, but the cosmos has pulled a disappearing act on an extraordinary amount of space dust around a nearby star and scientists are still baffled over the stunt.

"It's as if the rings around Saturn had disappeared," said study co-author Benjamin Zuckerman, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy. "This is even more shocking because the dusty disc of rocky debris was bigger and much more massive than Saturn's rings. The disc around this star, if it were in our solar system, would have extended from the sun halfway out to Earth, near the orbit of Mercury."

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The vanishing act occurred at a star 450 light years from Earth, which lead author Carl Melis calls a "young analog of our sun." At just 10 million years old, it's like a toddler when compared with our 4.6-billion-year-old sun.  

Just a few years ago, it showed all the characteristics of hosting a solar system in the making, but it has completely transformed. The space around the star, once full of warm, dusty material needed for creating planets, is now mysteriously barren.  

"It's like the classic magician's trick - now you see it, now you don't," said Melis. "Only in this case, we're talking about enough dust to fill an inner solar system, and it really is gone!"

There's no evidence to suggest that the star encountered a mega-flare or other violent event that could account for the missing dust, which has been present around the star since it was first observed in 1983 and has continued to glow brightly in the infrared for 25 years. Then, in 2009, it started to dim, and by 2010 the dust was simply gone. An image taken May 1 by the Gemini observatory at La Serena, Chile, confirmed that the disk was gone, reports Reuters.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, such a dramatic change is astonishingly fast when compared to the million-year time scale of most astronomical events, researchers said.

"The dust disappearance at [this star] was so bizarre and so quick, initially I figured that our observations must simply be in error in some strange way," Zuckerman said.

What may in fact be wrong is our idea of what happens as solar systems form. This observation is forcing scientists to rethink the interactions between young stars and growing solar systems.  

"Nothing like this has ever been seen in the many hundreds of stars that astronomers have studied for dust rings," Zuckerman said. "We were lucky to catch this disappearing act. Such events could be relatively common, without our knowing it."

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