Spooky things happens all the time in astronomy. The universe is a big place with lots of stuff going on constantly, and all of the knowledge we have on it is based on long distance speculation. Sometimes things go as we predict and then sometimes, something so utterly bizarre happens that it makes astronomers do a double take. When astronomers found that a disc of dust had just vanished around a star on an alarmingly short time scale, it was double take time.
First imaged by NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) in 1983, TYC 8241 2652 appeared to be a young sun-like star shrouded in a dusty disc. This disc was thought to be the same kind that formed planets in our own solar system. When a star forms it is usually surrounded with a large ring of left over material that was too dense to be blown away by its ignition. Through a long process, it is believed that the tug of gravity and the force of the stellar wind manages to form small planetesimals (baby planets) out of this left over material that then use their own gravity to pull in more and more stuff until they become fully formed planets. After a rough game of cosmic billiards where they either merge or are ejected from the solar system all together, you have what we now see as our modern solar system. So other than being an extremely young version of our own solar system, there was nothing exceptional about TYC 8241 2652, but when NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) looked at the star system again in 2010, it showed that the dust had vanished over two years ago. And no, it’s not supposed to work that way.
Carl Melis, one of the astronomer’s that released the finding in the July 5th issue of Nature has no idea how it happened…
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… A perplexing thing about this discovery is that we don’t have a satisfactory explanation to address what happened around this star. The disappearing act appears to be independent of the star itself, as there is no evidence to suggest that the star zapped the dust with some sort of mega-flare or any other violent event.
According to a UCLA news release, astronomers then went back through past observational data to confirm the finding. It seems that the disc of protoplanetary material glowed brightly in infrared since its discovery in 1983. Then in 2009, after 25 years with no apparent change in brightness, it started to dim and finally disappeared in just one year. Even though this mystery completely throws out the rule book for planetary formation, astronomers count themselves lucky to have spotted it at all. In a universe filled with trillions of stars that change over colossal time scales, a year is an eye blink.
Here’s artist Lynette Cook’s interpretation of what happened at TYC 8241 2652
This is a prime example of why I love this stuff. If Science were an immaculate million dollar house, then Nature would be the redneck neighbor who pops by unannounced and flips the dining room table over with its best Ric Flair “WOOO”, before strutting out the door.