Colossal Cometary Collisions in Beta Pictoris

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The massive carbon monoxide clouds observed in the Beta Pictoris planetary system are just weird. The star's ultraviolet light breaks down the gas within a century, so massive Mars-sized comets need to be constantly colliding to supply new gas.

We covered the research article last month, but now NASA has a new video delving into the discovery. If you missed the research when we first covered it, the quick-sketch is that Beta Pictoris is one busy little system. Read on for details, or skip to the end for the new video with its explodey animations.

Artist's impression of cometary collisions within the Beta Pictoris system. Image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/F. Reddy


Location constellation map. Image credit: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope

Beta Pictoris is the second-brightest star in the Pictor constellation. The constellation is home to five stars with known exoplanets (including Beta Pictoris), and a nova that hit peak brightness in 1925. Naked-eye visible from the southern hemisphere, Beta Pictoris already has a reputation as being a prototypical young planetary system, with a huge debris disc of dust around the star.


While carbon monoxide is toxic to humans, the only plausible sources of it in high quantities are comets. Comets are a mixture of carbon monoixde, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and methane ice, but are almost entirely water ice and dust. So, with this many comets creating a cloud of carbon monoxide this huge, the system must be absolutely permeated with water. Which is all a very long way of saying that once this system settles down, it might one day develop its own life (or be amenable to a refuelling stop by us if we make the 63 light-year journey some day).

The shear amount of carbon monoxide in this system is stunning. Unless we're observing Beta Pictoris at a very unusual time, then comets the size of Mars need to be colliding every five minutes to keep up with carbon monoxide production (or the volumetric equivalent of many, many smaller comets). Getting that many collisions requires that many huge icy comets, but it also means those comets must be kept in a tight swarm by some sort of shepherding force (like yet-to-be-observed planets).


Carbon monoxide concentrations around Beta Pictoris. Image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) & NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/F. Reddy


Even weirder, the clump is in the outer system. The known-planet orbits at 1.2 billion kilometers out from the star, while the cloud is 13 billion kilometers out. As an analogy to our own familiar solar system, that'd be like having a huge cometary collision zone hanging out near Neptune.

NASA's NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center put together a video discussing the observations, implications, and what this means for theories on the development of planetary systems.

Read more on the press release. Learn more about exploring comets inside our solar system, or coo over how ALMA staff rescue fuzzy creatures in their free time.