Science

An alien planet lost its atmosphere due to a giant impact

Astronomers may have for the first time detected evidence that a distant planet had its atmosphere partially destroyed by a giant impact, a new study finds.

Scientists think that newborn planetary systems generally experience titanic growing pains when the forming planets, known as protoplanets, collide with each other and merge to form progressively larger planets.

“Our own solar system shows abundant evidence of giant impacts,” lead study author Tajana Schneiderman, an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Space.com.

For example, previous research suggested that the Earth and the moon are the products of such gigantic impacts in the early solar system. However, “despite this, there has not been much evidence of observation of giant impacts elsewhere,” Schneiderman added.

Related: Hidden Exoplanets May Trigger Auroras In Distant Stars

Now, Schneiderman and his colleagues have discovered signs of a giant planetary crush about 95 light-years from Earth. The cosmic impact, around the 23-million-year-old star HD 172555, in the constellation Pavo, the peacock, likely destroyed part of a world’s atmosphere, they noted.

“We have detected a bare atmosphere for the first time,” Schneiderman said.

The star HD 172555 previously caught the attention of scientists due to the unusual nature of the dust that surrounds it. Previous work found that this stardust possessed much finer grains than astronomers would expect from a typical debris disk surrounding a star. This dust is also loaded with a host of unusual minerals, such as obsidian and black glassy tektites, that require powerful heat to form. Previous research suggested that a possible explanation for such dust was the collision of two worlds – a collision that involved speeds of more than 22,000 mph (36,000 kph).

In the new study, astronomers investigated what gas surrounding the star could reveal about its history. They analyzed data from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, focusing on carbon monoxide signs.

“When people want to study gas in debris disks, carbon monoxide is usually the brightest and therefore the easiest to find,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “So we looked at the carbon monoxide data for HD 172555 again because it was an interesting system.”

Scientists were able to detect carbon monoxide around the star. When they measured its abundance, they found that the gas around HD 172555 was equivalent to 20% of the carbon monoxide found in the hellish atmosphere of Venus. They also saw that it was circling surprisingly in large numbers close to the star at about 7.5 astronomical units (AU), or 7.5 times the average distance between Earth and the sun.

The presence of carbon monoxide this close to a star is a mystery because the molecule is normally vulnerable to photodissociation, a process in which photons (or light particles) break down and destroy the chemical. Typically, there is very little carbon monoxide near stars, leading researchers to analyze various scenarios to explain its presence around HD 172555.

Scientists quickly ruled out a scenario in which carbon monoxide arose from the debris of a newly formed star. Previous work suggested that carbon monoxide would barely last longer than the first 3 million years of a star’s life, much less the 23 million-year age of HD 172555.

When the researchers examined another scenario in which carbon monoxide was emitted by many icy comets that streaked in from a distant asteroid belt, similar to the solar system’s Kuiper belt, they found that it could not explain the minerals seen. in the dust.

The scenario that astronomers think best explains all the data is a giant impact between protoplanets: “a larger progenitor and a smaller impactor,” Schneiderman said. “The energies involved are enormous: the impact will result in parts of the bodies melting, so it is likely that some of the material from both will remain in place, while some of the material will be dislodged from the parent.”

“When it comes to the atmosphere, some of the atmosphere will be expelled by the impactor hitting the solid body, some of the atmosphere will be expelled from the rest of the planet as the shock wave travels through the atmosphere, and some they could be eliminated over a longer period of time, “added Schneiderman. “The impact is going to deliver energy to the atmosphere, which results in the atmosphere heating up. As it warms, it is easier to remove the atmosphere.”

In planetary systems as young as HD 172555, astronomers expect giant impacts to be quite common, Schneiderman said. When it comes to a giant impact explaining the carbon monoxide detected around that star, he pointed out that timescales work, age works, and limitations on the composition and shapes of the materials seen around that star work. .

“A giant impact is the best explanation for the characteristics of the system,” said Schneiderman.

The researchers estimated that the carbon monoxide came from a giant impact at least 200,000 years ago, recent enough that the star did not have enough time to completely destroy the gas. Based on the abundance of the gas, they suggest that the collision took place between two massive bodies, probably protoplanets comparable in size to Earth.

“I think a really critical implication is that the gas that is released after a giant impact can last for a long time and can affect the way the system evolves in the long term,” Schneiderman said. “It would be very exciting to get additional observations of this system with the current ALMA configuration; the updates that have been made since 2012, when the measurements were originally taken, would allow us to understand the system in greater detail.”

Also, “I think other young systems would be worth looking at as well,” Schneiderman said. “Carbon monoxide detection in this system suggests that carbon monoxide could be brighter than dust, so the detection of carbon monoxide after impact could be more observable than dust. I think targeting gas from Carbon monoxide could give us an opportunity to understand the giant impact statistics more broadly. “

The scientists detailed their findings online October 20 in the journal Nature.

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