Scientists have discovered two families of comets in the evolving stellar system Beta Painter, located at a distance of about 64 million light years from Earth. One group seems to be the remnants of a destroyed protoplanet.
This discovery strengthens our theoretical understanding of the violent processes that led to the formation of the Earth and other terrestrial planets in the solar system.
“If you look at the solar system when it was only 22 million years old, you may see phenomena similar to those in the Beta Painter system,” said astrophysicist Aki Roberge.
A graphic representation of Beta Painter B - a massive exoplanet orbiting the star Beta Painter.
"Rocky planets like Earth or any other solid planet consist of comets and asteroids. Collisions of these objects create planets," she added.
Astronomers have found exocomes, analyzing archival data from eight years ago, collected by the HARPS instrument installed on the ESA 3, 6 meter telescope at La Silla Observatory, Chile. At that moment, the instrument was focused on small evaporating objects that passed in front of the parent star on the same line with respect to the telescope's vision. "Our results show that evaporating objects observed for decades in the Beta Pictoris system are similar to comets in our solar system," says astronomer Flavien Kiefer from the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.
Beta Painter's 4-year rotation timelapse around the parent star
One group of comets, indicated by the S-group, appears to be gravitationally tied to a massive planet, the hypothetical Beta Painter B, which revolves around the parent planet just as Saturn rotates around our Sun. Astronomers also suspect that there is a second gas giant besides Beta Painter B.
The other group of comets, designated D-group, produces more gas than comets of S-group, so they are either physically larger or fresher, with a more open surface of ice. They are also located farther from Beta Painter B than the S-group comets. Comets B and D-groups have similar orbits, suggesting that they are fragments of a large ice planetary body that recently disintegrated.
"Additional analysis will show how recently this cataclysm occurred," said Rober.