(CNN) — Astronomers using the James Webb Space Telescope have spotted the first asteroid belt outside our solar system, and revealed some cosmic surprises.
The space observatory focused on the hot dust surrounding Fomalhat, a bright young star located in the constellation Piscis Austrinus, 25 light-years from Earth.
The dusty disk surrounding Fomalhat was first discovered in 1983 by NASA’s Infrared Astronomy Satellite. But Webb’s researchers didn’t expect to see three nested dust rings 23 billion kilometers from the star, or 150 times the distance from Earth to the Sun.
Webb’s new view revealed for the first time Fomalhat’s two inner belts that had not appeared in previous images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope or other observatories.
A detailed image of dust lanes captured in infrared light, invisible to the human eye, shows that the structures are more complex than our solar system’s main asteroid belt and the Kuiper Belt.
The main asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter, is the debris from our Solar System’s formation that orbits the Sun. The Kuiper Belt, located in the outer reaches of our Solar System, contains more icy debris: a ring-doughnut-shaped image of small celestial bodies and dust beyond Neptune.
Fomalhat’s exposure to two inner rings suggests that planets lurking deep in the star system may influence the shape of the dust belt. The outer Fomalhot belt alone is twice as large as the Kuiper belt. The new image and a study detailing the findings were published in the journal Monday Natural Astronomy.
Gravitational forces shape the rings
The massive Fomalhaut dust belts are likely formed from debris left over from collisions of larger bodies such as asteroids and comets.
Then, just as Jupiter and Neptune shaped our asteroid belt and the inner rim of the asteroid belt, the gravitational impact of what researchers believe are invisible planets orbiting the star shaped the dust bands.
“I describe Fomalhat as an archaic debris disk found elsewhere in our galaxy because it contains elements similar to those in our own planetary system,” said Andras Kaspar, lead author of the study. Arizona in Tucson, in a statement.
“By looking at the patterns in these rings, we can start to build a little sketch of what a planetary system might look like, if we could take an image deep enough to actually see the planets.”
Combining Webb’s new observations with images taken by Hubble, the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory and the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array could give scientists a more detailed look at how rocks form and how debris belts form around stars.
Webb also observed a feature Casper called a “great cloud of dust,” in which two celestial bodies may have collided in the outer ring. The cloud was different from another Hubble detected in 2008 and may have been a planet, but later observations showed the object had disappeared in 2014, indicating another collision that left only dust in its wake.
Stars form from gas and dust, and then a ring of leftover material called a protoplanetary disk surrounds the star, where planets are born. The idea for the disk came from late 18th century astronomers Immanuel Kant and Pierre-Simon Laplace. As planets form around a star, the belts are formed by the gravitational pull of the planets. Within the belts, objects such as asteroids collide with each other to create more debris and dust.
The study of dust belts will help reveal more secrets about the formation of planetary systems.
“The Belts Around Fomalhat A Mystery Novel: Where Are the Planets?” George Rieke, a professor of astronomy and planetary science at the University of Arizona in Tucson and head of the team, said in a statement. Scientist of the Webb mid-infrared instrument used in the observations. “I think it’s not a very big leap to say that there could be a very interesting planetary system around the star.”