NASA’s telescopes are having a great week.
On Wednesday, the space agency released news that the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes had for the first time spotted a massive galaxy forming, which they named “Sparky”.
Today, they confirmed Spitzer had caught the moment a couple of large asteroids smashed into each other, beginning a process that can often lead to the formation of planets.
“We are watching rocky planet formation happen right in front of us,” said George Rieke, a University of Arizona who co-author a study of the event, which was posted yesterday in the journal Science.
“This is a unique chance to study this process in near real-time.”
Spitzer first started watching a star dubbed NGC 2547-ID8 in May 2012. Several months later, it surged with a huge amount of fresh dust, giving NASA its first look before and after a collision between two large space bodies.
“We think two big asteroids crashed into each other, creating a huge cloud of grains the size of very fine sand, which are now smashing themselves into smithereens and slowly leaking away from the star,” said lead author and graduate student Huan Meng of the University of Arizona, Tucson.
As planets form from dusty material circling around stars, the team is hopeful they are now witnessing the formation of a new planetary system, which typically takes around 100 million years to mature.
NGC 2547-ID8 is situated 1200 light years away in the Vela constellation, but a relatively fresh 35 million years old compared to our own sun’s estimated 4.5 billion year lifespan.