Astronomers thought they had discovered an exoplanet beyond our solar system, but now, it has suddenly vanished from sight. They theorize that the full-sized planetary object, which was first photographed in 2004, could instead be a vast, expanding cloud of dust produced in a collision between two large bodies orbiting the bright nearby star Fomalhaut. Read more for two videos and additional information.
Fomalhaut b, first announced in 2008, was clearly visible in several years of Hubble Space Telescope observations that revealed it was a moving dot. Until then, evidence for exoplanets had mostly been inferred through indirect detection methods. This particular object was unusually bright in visible light, but did not have any detectable infrared heat signature. Astronomers thought the added brightness came from a huge shell or ring of dust encircling the planet that may possibly have been collision-related.
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The Fomalhaut system is the ultimate test lab for all of our ideas about how exoplanets and star systems evolve. We do have evidence of such collisions in other systems, but none of this magnitude has been observed in our solar system. This is a blueprint of how planets destroy each other,” said George Rieke of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory.