Comet observed crashing into distant star
PENN STATE UNIVERSITY
Posted: April 19, 2004
The star, which astronomers identify as LkHalpha 234, is classified as a Herbig Be star, which has a mass about six times that of the Sun and an estimated very young age of about 100,000 years. "This detection indicates that solid bodies of 100 km in size can form this early around a star," Ge explains. A report of the work will appear in the May 1st 2004 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The evidence of the infall comes from spectral analysis of the young star's light, which has travelled about 3200 years to reach Earth. Five sets of observations taken at intervals of 5 to 10 days during October and November 2003 indicated that the stellar light was absorbed by clouds of hydrogen and helium surrounding the star as well as by emissions from these clouds. "The spectacular appearances and disappearances of the neutral-sodium-absorption lines on one particular observation and the absence of its correlation with the hydrogen and helium lines suggests a comet-like body," says Chakraborty. "We know how hot the star is and how close to the star the neutral sodium atoms can survive. From that, and from the motion of the comet-like body during infall onto the star, we calculated how large the body would have to be to get this close to the star—one-tenth of the distance between the Sun and the Earth—before vaporizing."
The infall provides new data for understanding planetary formation and the timescale involved in the evolution of a massive star system. "The main reason we see comets in our solar system is that large snowballs in the outer parts of the solar system are disturbed by Jupiter's gravity," says Ge. "Eventually, some of the snowballs fall towards the inner solar system and we see then as comets." The observed infall of a comet-like body around LkH_234 may also point to disturbances produced by giant planets in this young star system. The team is now monitoring a number of similar stars and also LkH_234 in order to understand how common and how often this type of comet-like body occurs around these young massive stars.
This research was funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science