Two small planets hurtle toward each other at 22,000 miles per hour. They’re on a collision course. With unimaginable force, they smash into each other in a flash of light, blasting streams of molten rock far out into space.
This cataclysmic scene has happened countless times in countless solar systems. In fact, scientists think that such collisions could have created Earth’s moon, tilted Uranus on its side, set Venus spinning backward, and sheared the crust off Mercury.
But witnessing such a short-lived collision while pointing your telescope in just the right direction would be a tremendous stroke of luck. Well, astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer space telescope recently got lucky.
“It’s unusual to catch such a collision in the act, that’s for sure,” said Geoffrey Bryden, an astronomer specializing in extrasolar planet formation at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a member of the science team that made the discovery.
When Bryden and his colleagues pointed Spitzer at a star 100 light-years away called HD 172555, they noticed something strange. Patterns in the spectrum of light coming from nearby the star showed distinctive signs of silicon monoxide gas – huge amounts of it – as well as a kind of volcanic rock called tektite.
It was like discovering the wreckage from a cosmic car crash. The silicon monoxide was produced as the high-speed collision literally vaporized huge volumes of rock, which is made largely of silicon and oxygen. The impact also blasted molten lava far out into space, where it later cooled to form chunks of tektite.
Based on the amount of silicon monoxide and tektites, Bryden’s team calculated that the colliding planetary bodies must have had a combined mass more than twice that of Earth’s moon. The collision probably happened between 1,000 and 100,000 years ago – a blink of an eye in cosmic terms.
The scientists used the Spitzer space telescope because, unlike normal telescopes, Spitzer detects light at invisible, infrared wavelengths.
“Spitzer wavelengths are the best wavelengths to identify types of rock,” Bryden says. “You can pin down which type of rock, dust, or gas you’re looking at.”
Bryden says the discovery provides further evidence that planet-altering collisions are more common in other star systems than people once thought. The “crash-bang” processes at work in our own solar system may indeed be universal. If so, Spitzer has a front row seat on a truly smashing show.
See Spitzer Space Telescope’s brand new Web site at http://spitzer.caltech.edu/. Kids can learn about infrared light and see beautiful Spitzer images by playing the new Spitzer Concentration game at http://spaceplace.jpl.nasa.gov/en/kids/spitzer/concentration.
This artist’s concept shows a celestial body about the size of our moon slamming at great speed into a body the size of Mercury. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope found evidence that a high-speed collision of this sort occurred a few thousand years ago around a young star, called HD 172555, still in the early stages of planet formation. The star is about 100 light-years from Earth.
Spitzer detected the signatures of vaporized and melted rock, in addition to rubble, all flung out from the giant impact. Further evidence from the infrared telescope shows that these two bodies must have been traveling at a velocity relative to each other of at least 10 kilometers per second (about 22,400 miles per hour).
As the bodies slammed into each other, a huge flash of light would have been emitted. Rocky surfaces were vaporized and melted, and hot matter was sprayed everywhere. Spitzer detected the vaporized rock in the form of silicon monoxide gas, and the melted rock as a glassy substance called obsidian. On Earth, silica can be found around volcanoes in black glassy rocks called obsidian, and around meteor craters in small rocks called tektites.
Shock waves from the collision would have traveled through the planet, throwing rocky rubble into space. Spitzer also detected the signatures of this rubble.
In the end, the larger planet is left skinned, stripped of its outer layers. The core of the smaller body and most of its surface were absorbed by the larger one. This merging of rocky bodies is how planets like Earth are thought to form.
Astronomers say a similar type of event stripped Mercury of its crust early on in the formation of our solar system, flinging the removed material away from Mercury, out into space and into the sun. Our moon was also formed by this type of high-speed impact: a body the size of Mars is thought to have slammed into a young Earth about 30 to 100 million years after the sun formed. The sun is now 4.5 billion years old. According to this theory, the resulting molten rock, vapor and shattered debris mixed with debris from Earth to form a ring around our planet. Over time, this debris coalesced to make the moon.
Previous | Contents | Next