Unsettled Youth - Chaotic Planetary System Discovered
© NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Ariz.
Astronomers had previously used both Spitzer and Hubble to image a rotating disk of planetary debris around Fomalhaut, which is 25 light-years from Earth. HR 8799 is about five times farther away, so scientists weren't sure if Spitzer would be able to capture a picture of its disk. To their amazement and delight, Spitzer succeeded.
The giant cloud of fine dust around the disk is very unusual. The scientists propose that the dust is 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 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.