Spitzer Finds Evidence of Violent Planetary Collision

Article written: 10 Aug , 2009
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
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One of the main theories of how our Moon formed involves a violent cosmic collision between two planets. Astronomers have only been able to hypothesize what this collision was like, but now they have a better idea of what would ensue after such an event. With its infrared eyes the Spitzer Space Telescope has found the aftermath a collision between two planets, and what it shows is brutal. “This collision had to be huge and incredibly high-speed for rock to have been vaporized and melted,” said Carey M. Lisse of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, “This is a really rare and short-lived event, critical in the formation of Earth-like planets and moons. We’re lucky to have witnessed one not long after it happened.”

Watch the animation/recreation of the event in the video above.

LIsse and his team say that two rocky bodies, one as least as big as our moon and the other at least as big as Mercury, slammed into each other within the last few thousand years or so — not long ago by cosmic standards. The impact destroyed the smaller body, vaporizing huge amounts of rock and flinging massive plumes of hot lava into space.

Spitzer’s infrared detectors were able to pick up the signatures of the vaporized rock and amorphous silica — essentially melted glass — along with pieces of refrozen lava, called tektites.
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Spitzer observed a star called HD 172555, which is about 12 million years old and located about 100 light-years away in the far southern constellation Pavo, or the Peacock (for comparison, our solar system is 4.5 billion years old).

The astronomers used an instrument on Spitzer, called a spectrograph, to break apart the star’s light and look for fingerprints of chemicals, in what is called a spectrum. What they found was very strange. “I had never seen anything like this before,” said Lisse. “The spectrum was very unusual.”

What they were seeing was the amorphous silica. Silica can be found on Earth in obsidian rocks and tektites. Obsidian is black, shiny volcanic glass. Tektites are hardened chunks of lava that are thought to form when meteorites hit Earth.

Large quantities of orbiting silicon monoxide gas were also detected, created when much of the rock was vaporized. In addition, the astronomers found rocky rubble that was probably flung out from the planetary wreck.

The mass of the dust and gas observed suggests the combined mass of the two charging bodies was more than twice that of our moon.

Their speed must have been tremendous as well — the two bodies would have to have been traveling at a velocity relative to each other of at least 10 kilometers per second (about 22,400 miles per hour) before the collision.

“The collision that formed our moon would have been tremendous, enough to melt the surface of Earth,” said co-author Geoff Bryden of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “Debris from the collision most likely settled into a disk around Earth that eventually coalesced to make the moon. This is about the same scale of impact we’re seeing with Spitzer — we don’t know if a moon will form or not, but we know a large rocky body’s surface was red hot, warped and melted.”

We know that collisions such as this must happen frequently. Giant impacts are thought to have stripped Mercury of its outer crust, tipped Uranus on its side and spun Venus backward, to name a few examples. Such violence is a routine aspect of planet building. Rocky planets form and grow in size by colliding and sticking together, merging their cores and shedding some of their surfaces. Though things have settled down in our solar system today, impacts still occur, as was observed last month after a small space object crashed into Jupiter.

“Almost all large impacts are like stately, slow-moving Titanic-versus-the-iceberg collisions, whereas this one must have been a huge fiery blast, over in the blink of an eye and full of fury,” said Lisse.

The team’s paper will appear in the Aug. 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: NASA



10 Responses

  1. Jon Hanford says

    Awesome and humbling animation of the kinetic energy released in such an impact.

  2. microverses says

    That’s one scary animation, good thing the chances of that happening to us are….astronomical!!!!!

    I’ll be here all week folks. ;P

  3. Mike Lynch says

    But isn’t that what we’re discussing here?
    Astronomy??
    ;->

  4. gwhitton says

    That animation just doesn’t make sense to me, given the velocities and the size of the objects involved. The back side of the planet would not remain intact like that. I would imagine a deep implosion at point of impact and explosion of debris or an incredible deformation on the backside. Ultimately the combined objects would coalesce back into a spherical shape with a surrounding debris field, but not immediately.

  5. SteveZodiac says

    What bothers me about this is that no-one is hollering from the rooftops SMALL EXOPLANET FOUND! I guess the byline “but it’s in a zillion pieces” might lead us to wonder how much is conjecture

  6. Spoodle58 says

    SMALL EXOPLANET FOUND!
    Dead right in my book.

    It could also be the result of the deathstar destroying worlds rebelling against the empire.

  7. Spoodle58 says

    I’m also amazed that we can see this stuff 100 light years away.

  8. DrFlimmer says

    Is this a new way in confirming “rocky planets” around distant stars? 😉

    What this also means is that it seems to be likely that rocky planets are common in our galaxy. I mean, a collision of rocky planets around a star only 100Ly away and also a collision 4Myr ago very close by (right here on earth, to be precise – take a look at the moon). I think such things don’t coincide in such a way, do they?
    On the other hand – 100Ly is not that far out. Could it be that the star was made in the same cloud as the sun? Then it would be likely that the composition of the star and the planets is similar to the solar system.

    But who knows what civilisation has been destroyed by that event. Maybe they were clever enough not only to see it coming, but also to build a spaceship and say “Auf Wiedersehn”. Who knows?

  9. Manu says

    gwhitton: consider this video is extremely accelerated.
    At 10 km/s, the collision would take 1 hour for a Moon-sized impactor. Also, I doubt that the stress shock wave would travel much faster through the impacted object.
    Plenty of time to see it coming at you through the local web, if you’re ‘lucky’ to live on the opposing hemisphere.

  10. Manu says

    Ooops, just noticed my math is wrong after hitting Submit…
    Still, that makes it several looooong minutes.

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