CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Aug. 25 (UPI) — Large clouds of dust found around binary star systems could be the pulverized remains of planets, U.S. scientists say.
Scientists at Harvard University using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope spotted what they called surprising amounts of dust surrounding three mature, closely-orbiting star pairs, a university release says.
In trying to explain where the dust came from, some astronomer say it could be all that’s left of the aftermath of tremendous planetary collisions.
“This is real-life science fiction,” Jeremy Drake of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said. “Our data tell us that planets in these systems might not be so lucky — collisions could be common. It’s theoretically possible that habitable planets could exist around these types of stars, so if there happened to be any life there, it could be doomed.”
The particular classes of binary, or double, stars in the study are separated by only about 2 million miles, or one-fiftieth the distance between Earth and the sun. The cosmic pairs orbit around each other every few days, with one face on each star perpetually locked and pointed toward the other, researchers say.
The gravitational tug-of-war between such stars means any planets that might exist in the systems would start jostling about and banging into each other, sometimes in powerful collisions. This includes planets that could theoretically be circling in the double stars’ habitable zone — a region where temperatures would allow liquid water to exist.
“These kinds of systems paint a picture of the late stages in the lives of planetary systems,” Marc Kuchner, from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said. “And it’s a future that’s messy and violent.”
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