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January 12, 2018

Dissappearance of planet-forming disk (Image 1)

Artist's conception of the dusty system TYC 8241 2652 as it may have looked several years ago, when it was emitting large amounts of excess infrared radiation. The dusty disk of rocky debris around a nearby star has seemingly disappeared without explanation. [See related image Here.]

More about this image
In 2012, astronomers were surprised to discover a dusty disk of rocky debris around a nearby star had abruptly shut down and by all appearances disappeared.

Just a few years prior, the star -- designated TYC 8241 2652 and a young analog of our sun -- displayed all the characteristics of hosting a solar system in the making. Now, it has transformed completely. Very little of the warm dusty material thought to originate from collisions of rocky planets is apparent, a mystery that is baffling astronomers.

Carl Melis of the University of California, San Diego, led the discovery team, who reported on their findings in the July 5, 2012, issue of the journal Nature. "It's like the classic magician's trick: now you see it, now you don't. Only in this case we're talking about enough dust to fill an inner solar system and it really is gone," said Melis.

First seen by NASA's Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) in 1983, the dusty disk at TYC 8241 2652 remained brightly glowing for 25 years. Like Earth, warm dust absorbs the energy of visible starlight (sunlight) and re-radiates that heat energy as infrared radiation. An infrared image obtained at the Gemini Telescope in Chile on May 1, 2012 -- just as the paper was being accepted by Nature -- confirmed that the warm dust has now been gone for 2.5 years.

Melis said the researchers do not yet have a really satisfactory explanation as to what happened around this star but the disappearance appears to be independent of the star itself and the dust does not appear to have disappeared due to a violent event.

Co-author Ben Zuckerman of the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied circumstellar disks since the 1980s, noted that "the dust disappearance at TYC 8241 2652 was so bizarre and so quick, initially I figured that our observations must simply be in error in some strange way."

Norm Murray, Director of the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, who was not part of the research group, said, "The history of astronomy has shown that events that are not predicted and hard to explain can be game-changers."

This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation. To learn more about this research, see the Gemini news story Going out of business: Planet-forming disk turns off lights, locks doors. ¬(Date image taken: 2012; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: Dec. 22, 2017)

Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA artwork by Lynette Cook

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