Scientists recently used the sophisticated NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to reveal the first detailed image of asteroid belt spotted beyond our solar system. This first discovered interstellar asteroid belt region encircles a nearby young, hot star named Fomalhaut. Astronomers previously discovered Fomalhaut as the brightest star in the southern constellation Piscis Austrinus.
In 1983, NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) spotted the ring structure surrounding Fomalhaut. However, astronomers were not able to get a more detailed view from that first discovery. Hence, scientists have made several efforts to observe this ring system even further using numerous ground-based and space telescopes. Some observatories used to study this ring system in the past include Spitzer Space Telescope, Hubble Space Telescope, and Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii.
Astronomers used each of these telescopes to capture detailed images of the outermost part of the ring. However, they were not sophisticated enough to study the complex nature of the innermost part of the ring. This is where the Webb telescope comes in. In a recent observation, astronomers used the Webb telescope to reveal the structures of the two inner belts of the ring system for the system.
The most powerful telescope of our time used its infrared viewing capabilities to reveal a fascinating detail of the inner part of the rings to scientists. In fact, the fascinating detailed observation made by Webb made astronomers clearly understand what is going on within the first interstellar asteroid belt region.
“Where Webb really excels is that we’re able to physically resolve the thermal glow from dust in those inner regions. So, you can see inner belts that we could never see before,” said Schuyler Wolff, one of the study authors, in a statement.
What Scientists Learned about the First Asteroid Belt Found Beyond Our Solar System
NASA scientists compared the newly discovered asteroid belts and revealed that they are more complex than our main asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars, and the Kuiper belt region beyond Neptune. From JWST observations, astronomers discovered that the three dusty belts extend to about 14 billion miles (23 billion kilometers) from the star.
This implies that the outmost belt is double the size of the Kuiper Belt that lies beyond Neptune in our solar system. Scientists are suggesting that these belts came into existence by the debris colliding with larger celestial bodies such as massive asteroids and comets. Researchers referred to this formation as a debris disk, which is mostly formed when the planets are in one piece.
The team of scientists suggests that the debris disk could have come into existence by the gravitational tug of the invisible planets in the Fomalhaut star system. The debris belts consist of icy, rocky, and dusty particles that came from the huge planetary collision. The team of scientists studied the data provided by the JWST and came up with a satisfactory conclusion.
“By looking at the patterns in these rings, we can actually start to make a little sketch of what a planetary system ought to look like – If we could actually take a deep enough picture to see the suspected planets,” said András Gáspár of the University of Arizona in Tucson and lead author of the new paper.
What Astronomers think about the Unseen Planets in the Fomalhaut Star System
The Fomalhaut star system that houses the newly discovered asteroid belts is one of the most mysterious systems ever to be discovered. This is because no planets exist in the star system, based on our latest observations. However, astronomers discovered a massive strange gap between Fomalhaut’s outer and inner rings. Scientists are suggesting an unknown icy-giant planet about the same size as Neptune or Uranus could have been present in this new gap.
James Webb space telescope also spotted the great dust cloud which scientists are suggesting that they could have existed because of the collision of two protoplanetary bodies in the outer ring system.
“We definitely didn’t expect the more complex structure with the second intermediate belt and then the broader asteroid belt,” Wolff said. “That structure is very exciting, because any time an astronomer sees a gap and rings in a disk, they say, ‘There could be an embedded planet shaping the rings!'”
Hence, the researchers hope to use JWST to study and capture more interesting images of debris disks around other stars in the future.
“With Hubble and ALMA, we were able to image a bunch of Kuiper Belt analogs, and we’ve learned loads about how outer disks form and evolve. But we need Webb to allow us to image a dozen or so asteroid belts elsewhere. We can learn just as much about the inner warm regions of these disks as Hubble and ALMA taught us about the colder outer regions,” said Wolff.
The researchers have already published the study in the journal Nature Astronomy.
Scientific discoveries like this one often open the door to new astronomical discoveries. Astronomers will still have to conduct more studies to improve our knowledge about the Fomalhaut star system. what do you think about this astronomical finding?