Astronomers baffled by vanishing act in space

Astronomers have been baffled by an extraordinary amount of dust around a nearby star disappearing mysteriously.

Updated: Jul 06, 2012, 17:12 PM IST

Washington: Astronomers have been baffled by an extraordinary amount of dust around a nearby star disappearing mysteriously.

"It`s as if the rings around Saturn had disappeared. This is even more shocking because the dusty disc of rocky debris was bigger and much more massive than Saturn`s rings," said Benjamin Zuckerman, study co-author and professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California - San Diego (UCSD).

"The disc around this star, if it were in our solar system, would have extended from the sun halfway out to Earth, near the orbit of Mercury," Zuckerman was quoted as saying in the journal Nature.

"It`s like the classic magician`s trick - now you see it, now you don`t," said Carl Melis, post-doctoral scholar at the UCSD, who led the research. "Only in this case, we`re talking about enough dust to fill an inner solar system, and it really is gone!"

The cosmic vanishing act occurred around a star some 450 light years from Earth, in the direction of the constellation Centaurus, according to a university statement.

"A perplexing thing about this discovery is that we don`t have a satisfactory explanation to address what happened around this star," said Melis. "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."

Melis describes the star, designated TYC 8241 2652, as a "young analog of our sun" that only a few years ago displayed all of the characteristics of "hosting a solar system in the making," before transforming completely. Now, very little of the warm, dusty material thought to originate from collisions of rocky planets is apparent.

"Nothing like this has ever been seen in the many hundreds of stars that astronomers have studied for dust rings," Zuckerman said.

"This disappearance is remarkably fast, even on a human time scale, much less an astronomical scale. The dust disappearance at TYC 8241 2652 was so bizarre and so quick, initially I figured that our observations must simply be wrong in some strange way."

Norm Murray, director of the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, who was not part of the research group, said: "The history of astronomy has shown that events that are not predicted and hard to explain can be game-changers."