Researchers have captured a dramatic celestial event that has never been observed before: the collision of two colossal icy giants, both as massive as Neptune. This groundbreaking event unleashed a deluge of debris and radiation into the cosmos, changing the face of a distant star system forever.
Birth of a Celestial Giant
As these icy titans collided, something astonishing occurred. The collision gave birth to a rapidly spinning celestial object, a “synestia,” dwarfing our Earth in size and casting its glow throughout the star system. This unique celestial spectacle is a testament to the immense energy released during such a cataclysmic event.
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Matthew Kenworthy, a co-author of the study hailing from the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, describes it as “spectacular.” The energy generated by the collision transformed the aftermath into a star-like entity, albeit fainter than the primary star in the system. This giant, approximately seven times Earth’s size, is now visible throughout the entire star system, offering astronomers an unprecedented view into the celestial wonders of the universe.
The journey to this groundbreaking discovery began with an astronomer’s curiosity. Dr. Matthew Kenworthy, in his quest to observe the shadows cast by giant planetary rings when they passed in front of their parent star, stumbled upon an enigmatic star known as ASASSN-21qj. Located a staggering 1,800 light years away from Earth, this star piqued Kenworthy’s interest due to an intriguing observation: in December 2021, its radiant light dimmed.
Arttu Sainio, a citizen scientist at NASA, dove into the archives of the US Space Agency’s Neowise mission, which operates an infrared space telescope. Sainio’s dedication and diligence revealed a remarkable clue: approximately 900 days before the star’s luminosity dwindled, Neowise had detected a sustained and steady increase in infrared light emanating from the same celestial location. Dr. Kenworthy recalls, “I was looking for something completely different. The infrared brightening told us something unusual had happened in the neighborhood of this star, and so it took us down this new path.”
Revelation and Analysis
As astrophysicists scrutinized the data, they began to piece together the extraordinary story hidden within the infrared readings. The blast of infrared radiation was attributed to the birth of a “synestia” – a scorching new object formed by the colossal collision of two planets, both nearly as massive as Neptune. The synestia boasted a temperature exceeding 700°C for approximately three years, an inferno that would eventually cool down and transform into a nascent planet, encircling the star.
About 2.5 years after the synestia’s formation, the star began to dim. The researchers attributed this dimming to a colossal cloud of fine impact debris that drifted across the face of the star. According to Simon Lock, another co-lead author from the University of Bristol, “It’s the first time we’ve seen the afterglow from such an event. We’ve seen debris and discs before, but we have never seen the afterglow of the planetary body that’s produced.”
This groundbreaking discovery has left astronomers and scientists buzzing with anticipation. The experts are now looking to embark on follow-up studies, eager to gain deeper insights into the aftermath of this cosmic collision. Dr. Kenworthy offered a glimpse into the future, stating, “If the dust cloud continues to orbit the star, then in about five to 10 years, the cloud will have moved to one side of the star, and astronomers should see the star’s light reflected from the dust with the largest ground-based telescopes.”