Space Pictures This Week: Australia Burns, Pulsars Wobble

Image courtesy P. Kalas, U. California, and ESA/NASA

This new Hubble Space Telescope image of a nearby star, Fomalhaut, and its surrounding disc of debris have made astronomers sit up and take notice. That's because the picture, released January 8, reveals that the debris field—made of ice, dust, and rocks—is wider than previously thought, spanning an area 14 to 20 billion miles from the star.

Scientists have also used the image to calculate the path of a planet, Fomalhaut b, as it makes its away around the star. It turns out that the planet's 2,000-year elliptical orbit takes it three times closer to Fomalhaut than previously thought, and that its eccentric path could send it plowing through the rock and ice contained in the debris field.

The resulting collision, if it happens, could occur around the year 2032 and result in a show similar to what happened when the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter, astronomer Paul Kalas, of the University of California at Berkeley, said in a statement.

Published January 11, 2013

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