The Strange Warm Spot of upsilon Andromedae b

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If you set a big black rock outside in the Sun for a few hours, then go and touch it, you’d expect the warmest part of the rock to be that which was facing the Sun, right? Well, when it comes to exoplanets, your expectations will be defied. A new analysis of a well-studied exoplanetary system reveals that one of the planets – which is not a big black rock, but a Jupiter-like ball of gas – has its warmest part opposite that of its star.

The system of Upsilon Andromedae, which lies 44 light years away from the Earth in the constellation Andromeda, is a much studied system of planets that orbit around a star a little more massive and slightly hotter than our Sun.

The closest planet to the star, upsilon Andromeda b, was the first exoplanet to have its temperature taken by The Spitzer Space Telescope. As we reported back in 2006, upsilon Andromeda b was thought to be tidally locked to the star and show corresponding temperature changes at it went around its host star. That is, as it went behind the star from our perspective, the face was warmer than when it was in front of the star from our perspective. Simple enough, right? These original results were published in a paper in Science on October 27th, 2006, available here.

As it turns out, this temperature change scenario is not the case. UCLA Professor of Physics and Astronomy Brad Hansen, who is a co-author on both the 2006 paper and updated results, explains, “The original report was based on just a few hours of data, taken early in the mission, to see whether such a measurement was even possible (it is close to the limit of the expected performance of the instrument). Since the observations suggested it was possible to detect, we were awarded a larger amount of time to do it in more detail.”

Observations of upsilon Andromedae b were taken with the Spitzer again in February of 2009. Once the astronomers were able to study the planet more, they discovered something odd – just how warm the planet was when it passed in front of the star from our perspective was a lot warmer than when it passed behind, just the opposite of what one would expect, and opposite of the results they originally published. Here’s a link to an animation that helps explain this strange feature of the planet.

What the astronomers discovered – and have yet to explain fully – is that there is a “warm spot” about 80 degrees opposite of the face of the planet that is pointed towards the star. In other words, the warmest spot on the planet is not on the side of the planet that is receiving the most radiation from the star.

This in itself is not a novelty. Hansen said, “There are several exoplanets observed with warm spots, including some whose spots are shifted relative to the location facing the star (an example is the very well studied system HD189733b). The principal difference in this case is that the shift we observe is the largest known.”

Upsilon Andromedae b does not transit in front of its star from our vantage point on the Earth. Its orbit is inclined by about 30 degrees, so it appears to be passing “below” the star as it comes around the front. This means that astronomers cannot use the transit method of exoplanetary study to get a handle on its orbit, but rather measure the tug that the planet exerts on the star. It has been determined that upsilon Andromedae b orbits about every 4.6 days, has a mass 0.69 that of Jupiter and is about 1.3 Jupiter radii in diameter. To get a better idea of the whole system of upsilon Andromedae, see this story we ran earlier this year.

So what, exactly, could be causing this bizarrely placed warm spot on the planet? The paper authors suggest that equatorial winds – much like those on Jupiter – could be transferring heat around the planet.

A graph and visual representation of the hot spot as the planet orbits the star upsilon Andromedae. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Hansen explained, “At the sub-stellar point (the one closest to the star) the amount of radiation being absorbed from the star is highest, so the gas there is heated more. It will therefore have a tendency to flow away from the hot region towards cold regions. This, combined with rotation will give a “trade wind”-like structure to the gas flow on the planet… The big uncertainty is how that energy is eventually dissipated. The fact that we observe a hot spot at roughly 90 degrees suggests that this occurs somewhere near the “terminator” (the day/night edge). Somehow the winds are flowing around from the sub-stellar point and then dissipating as they approach the night side. We speculate that this may be from the formation of some kind of shock front.”

Hansen said that they are unsure just how large this warm spot is. “We have only a very crude measure of this, so we have modeled as basically two hemispheres – one hotter than the other. One could make the spot smaller and make it correspondingly hotter and you would get the same effect. So, one can trade off spot size versus temperature contrast while still matching the observations.”

The most recent paper, which is co-authored by members from the United States and the UK, will appear in the Astrophysical Journal. If you’d like to go outside and see the star upsilon Andromedae,here’s a star chart.

Source: JPL Press Release, Arxiv here and here , email interview with Professor Brad Hansen.

Tight Binaries are ‘Death Stars’ for Planets

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Astronomers studying double star systems where the two stars are extremely close have found a pattern of destruction. While there probably isn’t a Star Wars-like Death Star roaming the Universe, tight binary systems might provide the equivalent of Darth Vader’s favorite weapon. “This is real-life science fiction,” said Jeremy Drake of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “Our data tell us that planets in these systems might not be so lucky — collisions could be common. It’s theoretically possible that habitable planets could exist around these types of stars, so if there happened to be any life there, it could be doomed.”

Using the Spitzer Space Telescope, Drake and his team spotted a surprisingly large amount of dust around three mature, close-orbiting star pairs, that might be the aftermath of tremendous planetary collisions.

Drake is the principal investigator of the research, published in the Aug.19 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The particular class of binary stars in the study are extremely close together. Named RS Canum Venaticorums, or RS CVns for short, they are separated by only about 3.2-million kilometers (two-million miles ), or two percent of the distance between Earth and our sun. The binaries orbit around each other every few days, with one face on each star perpetually locked and pointed toward the other.

These stars are familiarly like our own Sun – about the same size and probably about a billion to a few billion years old — roughly the age of our sun when life first evolved on Earth. But these stars spin much faster, and, as a result, have powerful magnetic fields, and giant, dark spots. The magnetic activity drives strong stellar winds — gale-force versions of the solar wind — that slow the stars down, pulling the twirling duos closer over time.

This is not a good scenario for planetary survival.

As the stars cozy up to each other, their gravitational influences change, and this could cause disturbances to planetary bodies orbiting around both stars. Comets and any planets that may exist in the systems would start jostling about and banging into each other, sometimes in powerful collisions. This includes planets that could theoretically be circling in the double stars’ habitable zone, a region where temperatures would allow liquid water to exist. Though no habitable planets have been discovered around any stars beyond our sun at this point in time, tight double-star systems are known to host planets; for example, one system not in the study, called HW Vir, has two gas-giant planets.

“These kinds of systems paint a picture of the late stages in the lives of planetary systems,” said Marc Kuchner, a co-author from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “And it’s a future that’s messy and violent.”

The temperatures around these systems measured by Spitzer are about the same as molten lava. The astronomers says that dust normally would have dissipated and blown away from the stars by this mature stage in their lives. They conclude that something — most likely planetary collisions — must therefore be kicking up the fresh dust. In addition, because dusty disks have now been found around four, older binary systems, the scientists know that the observations are not a fluke. Something chaotic is very likely going on.

If any life forms did exist in these star systems, and they could look up at the sky, they would have quite a view. Marco Matranga, lead author of the paper, also from Harvard-Smithsonian said, “The skies there would have two huge suns, like the ones above the planet Tatooine in ‘Star Wars.'”

The research was published in the Aug.19 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Source: JPL

Spitzer Peers Into the Small Magellanic Cloud

Spitzer Image of the Small Magellanic Cloud

This week at the AAC Conference, astronomers released a new image of the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC, a dwarf galaxy just outside our Milky Way) from Spitzer. The purpose of the image was to study “the life cycle of dust in this galaxy.” In this life cycle, clouds of gas and dust collapse to form new stars. As those stars die, they create new dust in their atmosphere which will enrich the galaxy and, when the stars give off that dust, will be made available future generations of stars. The rate at which this process occurs determines how fast the galaxy will evolve. This research has shown that the SMC is far less evolved than our on galaxy and only has 20% of the heavy elements that our own galaxy has. Such unevolved galaxies are reminiscent of the building blocks of larger galaxies.

As with most astronomical images, this new image is taken in different filters which correspond to different wavelengths of light. The red is 24 microns and traces mainly cool dust which is part of the reservoir from which new star formation can occur. Green represents the 8 micron wavelength and traces warmer dust in which new stars are forming. The blue is even warmer at 3.6 microns and shows older stars which have already cleared out their local region of gas and dust. By combining the amount of each of these, astronomers are able to determine the current rate at which evolution is taking place in order to understand how the evolution of the SMC is progressing.

The new research shows that the tail (lower right in this image) is tidal in nature as it’s being tugged on by gravitational interactions with the Milky Way. This tidal interaction has caused new star formation in the galaxy. Surprisingly, the team of researchers also indicated that their work may indicate that the Magellanic Clouds are not gravitational bound to the Milky Way and may just be passing.

More images can be found at the JPL website.

Get the Big Picture of the Milky Way at the Adler Planetarium

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Astronomy is all about getting the big picture of our place in the cosmos, but some pictures are bigger than others. This one is really big. The world’s largest image of our Milky Way galaxy went on display today at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. The image spans an area of 37 meters (120 feet) long by 1 meter (3 feet) wide at its sides, bulging to 2 meters (6 feet) to show the center of our humongous galaxy. The panorama represents 800,000 separate images taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope over a five-year period.


“This is the highest-resolution, largest, most sensitive infrared picture ever taken of our Milky Way,” said Sean Carey of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center, speaking when the image was unveiled in 2008 at the American Astronomical Society meeting in St. Louis (see our article and image of the unveiling). “Where previous surveys saw a single source of light, we now see a cluster of stars. With this data, we can learn how massive stars form, map galactic spiral arms and make a better estimate of our galaxy’s star-formation rate.”

Spitzer Survey image compiled.  Credit: NASA/JPL
Spitzer Survey image compiled. Credit: NASA/JPL

Data from Spitzer’s Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) and the Multiband Imaging Photometer were used to create the image.

If you want to download a very large version of this image (2400 x 3000) click here — warning: very big file.

From our vantage point on Earth, we see the Milky Way as a blurry, narrow band of light that stretches across the sky. In the visible, we only see about 5% of what’s actually out there. But with Spitzer’s dust-piercing infrared eyes, astronomers have peered 60,000 light-years away into this fuzzy band, called the galactic plane, and saw all the way to the other side of the galaxy.

The panorama reveals star formation as never seen before on both the large and small scale. Most of the star forming regions had not been seen before this project was undertaken.

I had the good fortune of seeing the image in St. Louis, and I highly recommend taking the opportunity to go see it at the Adler Planetarium if you are in Chicago. Here’s a video that explains how astronomers took the images and put them all together to form this gigantic panorama.

*Serendipitously, I am currently at the dotAstronomy conference where Eli Bressert from the Chandra X-Ray Center talked about the GLIMPSE Viewer. Here’s the link to see the Spitzer image with GLIMPSE (Galactic Legacy Infrared Midplane Extraordinaire).

Adler Planetarium is located at 1300 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Ill., 60605. Phone: 312-922-7827. Adler Planetarium website. .

Baby Brown Dwarfs Provide Clues to Solve Mystery

Why – and how — do brown dwarfs form? Since these cosmic misfits fall somewhere between planets and stars in terms of their temperature and mass, astronomers haven’t yet been able to determine how they form: are their beginnings like planets or stars? Now, the Spitzer Space Telescope has found what could be two of the youngest brown dwarfs. While astronomers are still looking to confirm the finding of these so-called “proto brown dwarfs” it has provided a preliminary answer of how these unusual stars form.

The baby brown dwarfs were found in Spitzer data collected in 2005. Astronomers had focused their search in the dark cloud Barnard 213, a region of the Taurus-Auriga complex well known to astronomers as a hunting ground for young objects.

“We decided to go several steps back in the process when (brown dwarfs) are really hidden,” said David Barrado of the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid, Spain, lead author of the paper, published in the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal. “During this step they would have an (opaque) envelope, a cocoon, and they would be easier to identify due to their strong infrared excesses. We have used this property to identify them. This is where Spitzer plays an important role because Spitzer can have a look inside these clouds. Without it this wouldn’t have been possible.”

Barrado said the findings potentially solve the mystery about whether brown dwarfs form more like stars or planets. The team’s findings? Brown dwarfs form like low-mass stars.

Brown dwarfs are cooler and more lightweight than stars and more massive (and normally warmer) than planets. They are born of the same dense, dusty clouds that spawn stars and planets. But while they may share the same galactic nursery, brown dwarfs are often called “failed” stars because they lack the mass of their hotter, brighter stellar siblings. Without that mass, the gas at their core does not get hot enough to trigger the nuclear fusion that burns hydrogen — the main component of these molecular clouds — into helium. Unable to ignite as stars, brown dwarfs end up as cooler, less luminous objects that are more difficult to detect — a challenge that was overcome in this case by Spitzer’s heat-sensitive infrared vision.

This artist's rendering gives us a glimpse into a cosmic nursery as a star is born from the dark, swirling dust and gas of this cloud. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist's rendering gives us a glimpse into a cosmic nursery as a star is born from the dark, swirling dust and gas of this cloud. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Young brown dwarfs also evolve rapidly, making it difficult to catch them when they are first born. The first brown dwarf was discovered in 1995 and, while hundreds have been found since, astronomers had not been able to unambiguously find them in their earliest stages of formation until now.

Spitzer’s longer-wavelength infrared camera penetrated the dusty natal cloud to observe STB213 J041757. The data, confirmed with near-infrared imaging from Calar Alto Observatory in Spain, revealed not one but two of what would potentially prove to be the faintest and coolest brown dwarfs ever observed.

The twins were observed from around the globe, and their properties were measured and analyzed using a host of powerful astronomical tools. One of the astronomers’ stops was the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory in Hawaii, which captured the presence of the envelope around the young objects. That information, coupled with what they had from Spitzer, enabled the astronomers to build a spectral energy distribution — a diagram that shows the amount of energy that is emitted by the objects in each wavelength.

From Hawaii, the astronomers made additional stops at observatories in Spain (Calar Alto Observatory), Chile (Very Large Telescopes) and New Mexico (Very Large Array). They also pulled decade-old data from the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre archives that allowed them to comparatively measure how the two objects were moving in the sky. After more than a year of observations, they drew their conclusions.

“We were able to estimate that these two objects are the faintest and coolest discovered so far,” Barrado said. This theory is bolstered because the change in brightness of the objects at various wavelengths matches that of other very young, low-mass stars.

While further study will confirm whether these two celestial objects are in fact proto brown dwarfs, they are the best candidates so far, Barrado said. He said the journey to their discovery, while difficult, was fun. “It is a story that has been unfolding piece by piece. Sometimes nature takes its time to give up its secrets.”

Lead image caption: This image shows two young brown dwarfs, objects that fall somewhere between planets and stars in terms of their temperature and mass. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Calar Alto Obsv./Caltech Sub. Obsv.

Source: JPL

Multi-Planet System is Chaotic, Dusty

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope captured this infrared image of a giant halo of very fine dust around the young star HR 8799. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Ariz.

Just what is going on over at the star HR 8799? The place is a mess! But we can just blame it on the kids. Young, hyperactive planets circling the star are thought to be disturbing smaller comet-like bodies, causing them to collide and kick up a huge halo of dust. HR 8799 was in the news in November 2008, for being one of the first with imaged planets. Now, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has taken a closer look at this planetary system and found it to be a very active, chaotic and dusty system. Ah, youth: our solar system was likely in a similar mess before our planets found their way to the stable orbits they circle in today.

The Spitzer team, led by Kate Su of the University of Arizona, Tucson, says the giant cloud of fine dust around the disk is very unusual. They say this dust must be coming from collisions among small bodies similar to the comets or icy bodies that make up today’s Kuiper Belt objects in our solar system. The gravity of the three large planets is throwing the smaller bodies off course, causing them to migrate around and collide with each other. Astronomers think the three planets might have yet to reach their final stable orbits, so more violence could be in store. The planets around HR 8799 are about 10 times the mass of Jupiter.

“The system is very chaotic and collisions are spraying up a huge cloud of fine dust,” said Su. “What’s exciting is that we have a direct link between a planetary disk and imaged planets. We’ve been studying disks for a long time, but this star and Fomalhaut are the only two examples of systems where we can study the relationships between the locations of planets and the disks.”

When our solar system was young, it went through similar planet migrations. Jupiter and Saturn moved around quite a bit, throwing comets around, sometimes into Earth. Some say the most extreme part of this phase, called the late heavy bombardment, explains how our planet got water. Wet, snowball-like comets are thought to have crashed into Earth, delivering life’s favorite liquid.

The Spitzer results were published in the Nov. 1 issue of Astrophysical Journal. The observations were made before Spitzer began its “warm” mission and used up its liquid coolant.

Source: JPL

Spitzer Watches Planet-Forming Disk Change Quickly

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Something strange is going on around a young star called LRLL 31. Astronomers have witnessed a swirling disk of gas and dust which is changing rather quickly; sometimes weekly. This is likely a planet forming disk, however, planets take millions of years to form, so it’s rare to see anything change on time scales we humans can perceive. Another object appears to be pushing a clump of planet-forming material around the star, and this region is offering astronomers with the Spitzer Space Telescope a rare look into the early stages of planet formation.

Astronomer are seeing the light from this disk varying quite frequently. One possible explanation is that a close companion to the star — either a star or a developing planet — could be shoving planet-forming material together, causing its thickness to vary as it spins around the star.

“We don’t know if planets have formed, or will form, but we are gaining a better understanding of the properties and dynamics of the fine dust that could either become, or indirectly shape, a planet,” said James Muzerolle of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md. Muzerolle is first author of a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. “This is a unique, real-time glimpse into the lengthy process of building planets.”

One theory of planet formation suggests that planets start out as dusty grains swirling around a star in a disk. They slowly bulk up in size, collecting more and more mass like sticky snow. As the planets get bigger and bigger, they carve out gaps in the dust, until a so-called transitional disk takes shape with a large doughnut-like hole at its center. Over time, this disk fades and a new type of disk emerges, made up of debris from collisions between planets, asteroids and comets. Ultimately, a more settled, mature solar system like our own forms.

Before Spitzer was launched in 2003, only a few transitional disks with gaps or holes were known. With Spitzer’s improved infrared vision, dozens have now been found. The space telescope sensed the warm glow of the disks and indirectly mapped out their structures.

Muzerolle and his team set out to study a family of young stars, many with known transitional disks. The stars are about two to three million years old and about 1,000 light-years away, in the IC 348 star-forming region of the constellation Perseus. A few of the stars showed surprising hints of variations. The astronomers followed up on one, LRLL 31, studying the star over five months with all three of Spitzer’s instruments.

The observations showed that light from the inner region of the star’s disk changes every few weeks, and, in one instance, in only one week. “Transition disks are rare enough, so to see one with this type of variability is really exciting,” said co-author Kevin Flaherty of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Both the intensity and the wavelength of infrared light varied over time. For instance, when the amount of light seen at shorter wavelengths went up, the brightness at longer wavelengths went down, and vice versa.

Muzerolle and his team say that a companion to the star, circling in a gap in the system’s disk, could explain the data. “A companion in the gap of an almost edge-on disk would periodically change the height of the inner disk rim as it circles around the star: a higher rim would emit more light at shorter wavelengths because it is larger and hot, but at the same time, the high rim would shadow the cool material of the outer disk, causing a decrease in the longer-wavelength light. A low rim would do the opposite. This is exactly what we observe in our data,” said Elise Furlan, a co-author from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

The companion would have to be close in order to move the material around so fast — about one-tenth the distance between Earth and the sun.

The astronomers plan to follow up with ground-based telescopes to see if a companion is tugging on the star hard enough to be perceived. Spitzer will also observe the system again in its “warm” mission to see if the changes are periodic, as would be expected with an orbiting companion. Spitzer ran out of coolant in May of this year, and is now operating at a slightly warmer temperature with two infrared channels still functioning.

“For astronomers, watching anything in real-time is exciting,” said Muzerolle. “It’s like we’re biologists getting to watch cells grow in a petri dish, only our specimen is light-years away.”

Source: JPL

Trigger-Happy Star Formation in Cepheus B

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Combining data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Spitizer Space Telescope allowed astronomers to create this gorgeous new image of Cepheus B. Besides being incredible eye candy, the new image also provides fresh insight into how some stars are born. The research shows that radiation from massive stars may trigger the formation of many more stars than previously thought.

While astronomers have long understood that stars and planets form from the collapse of a cloud of gas, the question of the main causes of this process has remained open.

“Astronomers have generally believed that it’s somewhat rare for stars and planets to be triggered into formation by radiation from massive stars,” said Konstantin Getman of Penn State University, and lead author of the study. “Our new result shows this belief is likely to be wrong.”

Chandra image of Cepheus B.  Credit: NASA/Chandra team
Chandra image of Cepheus B. Credit: NASA/Chandra team

The new study suggests that star formation in the region of study in this image, Cepheus B, is mainly triggered by radiation from one bright, massive star outside the molecular cloud. According to theoretical models, radiation from this star would drive a compression wave into the cloud triggering star formation in the interior, while evaporating the cloud’s outer layers. The Chandra-Spitzer analysis revealed slightly older stars outside the cloud while the youngest stars with the most protoplanetary disks congregate in the cloud interior — exactly what is predicted from the triggered star formation scenario.

“We essentially see a wave of star and planet formation that is rippling through this cloud,” said co-author Eric Feigelson, also of Penn State. “Outside the cloud, the stars probably have newly born planets while inside the cloud the planets are still gestating.”

Cepheus B is a cloud of mainly cool molecular hydrogen located about 2,400 light years from the Earth. There are hundreds of very young stars inside and around the cloud — ranging from a few millions years old outside the cloud to less than a million in the interior — making it an important testing ground for star formation.

Previous observations of Cepheus B had shown a rim of ionized gas around the molecular cloud and facing the massive star. However, the wave of star formation — an additional crucial feature to identifying the source of the star formation — had not previously been seen. “We can even clock how quickly this wave is traveling and it’s going about 2,000 miles per hour,” said Getman.

The star that is the catalyst for the star formation in Cepheus B, is about 20 times as massive as the Sun, or at least five times weightier than any of the other stars in Cepheus B.

The Chandra and Spitzer data also suggest that multiple episodes of star and planet formation have occurred in Cepheus B over millions of years and that most of the material in the cloud has likely already been evaporated or transformed into stars.

“It seems like this nearby cloud has already made most of its stars and its fertility will soon wane,” said Feigelson. “It’s clear that we can learn a lot about stellar nurseries by combining data from these two Great Observatories.”

A paper describing these results was published in the July 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: Chandra

Spitzer Finds Evidence of Violent Planetary Collision


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