Spitzer, NASA‘s infrared telescope, was designed specifically for detecting dust and debris created by celestial body collisions. Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers took over 100 routine observations of a distant ten-million-year-old star called HD166191 and combined them with data on the star’s brightness and size to produce data that will help scientists test theories about how planets form and grow.
The Moon and the Earth, like most rocky planets, satellites, and other celestial objects in the solar system, were formed by massive collisions early in the solar system’s history.
With these collisions, terrestrial bodies accumulate more material and grow in size. They can also disintegrate into numerous smaller bodies in this manner.
The astronomers began observing HD 166191 in 2015, led by Kate Su of the University of Arizona. Dust leftover from the star’s formation has clumped together to form small rocky bodies known as ‘planetesimals,’ which could be the seeds for future planets.
Catastrophic collisions between these objects became more common after the gas that had previously filled the space between them dispersed. Between 2015 and 2019, the scientists began using Spitzer to make these observations in the hopes of finding evidence of such collisions.
Even though the planetesimals themselves were too small for the telescope to capture, their collisions produce a lot of dust. Spitzer was uniquely suited to detecting the dust and debris created by these collisions because it was an infrared light telescope.
Astronomers can record these observations by detecting when one of these bodies’ debris clouds pass in front of a star and temporarily block light. This is referred to as a transit.
Moreover, the HD 166191 system became noticeably brighter for the Spitzer telescope in mid-2018, indicating an increase in debris production. The telescope also detected a transit, or a debris cloud blocking the star, during this time.
This cloud appears to be highly elongated, with a minimum area estimated to be at least three times that of the star, according to the astronomers’ findings. The amount of infrared brightening detected, on the other hand, suggests that only a small portion of the cloud passed in front of the star and that the debris from this event could cover an area a hundred times larger than the star itself.
The collision must produce a debris cloud the size of dwarf planets, such as Ceres in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, which is 473 kilometres wide. The initial collision would have vaporised some of the material and started a chain reaction of impacts between fragments from the collision and other small bodies in the system. This could explain why Spitzer was able to collect such a large amount of dust.
The dust cloud grew in size and transparency over the next few months, until it was no longer recognizable in 2019 when the part of the cloud that passed in front of the star was no longer visible. However, the system had already accumulated twice as much dust as it had before the cloud was discovered. This information, according to the astronomers, will aid scientists in testing theories about how terrestrial planets form and grow.
Gist on Spitzer Space Telescope
NASA’s Infrared Great Observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope, was launched in 2003. On August 25, 2003, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope was launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Base. Spitzer observed an optically invisible universe dominated by dust and stars while drifting in a unique Earth-trailing orbit around the Sun.
Astronomers have been attempting to place telescopes above the atmosphere for years in order to catch a glimpse of an otherwise hidden infrared universe. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope is a technological marvel, incorporating many firsts for a space mission.
Spitzer discovered a giant ring around Saturn, revealed a system of seven Earth-size planets orbiting a star 40 light-years away, and studied the most distant known galaxies, among many other achievements in its 16 years of operation.
Spitzer must be both “cold” and “warm” at the same time in order to function properly. Spitzer ran out of liquid coolant in 2009, so it embarked on a “warm mission,” refocusing the research on determining how quickly our universe is stretching apart and characterising asteroids and gas-giant planet atmospheres. Spitzer was in its warm mission for more than a decade, or roughly twice as long as it was in its primary mission. Engineers decommissioned the spacecraft on Jan. 30, 2020, bringing the Spitzer mission to a close.