Caution: Comet Crash Zone Ahead

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There’s a comet massacre under way at Fomalhaut, a young, very bright star in the constellation Piscis Austrinus that is about twice as big as our sun.

The proof? Fomalhaut’s ring of dust, first discovered in the 1980s and the subject of ongoing and conflicting studies about the size and temperature of its particles.

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New research from scientists using the European Space Agency’s Herschel infrared space telescope resolves the dispute with a theory that the belt is filled with the dusty remains of comets and that it is being continually replenished.

Analysis shows that to sustain the belt, there has to be the equivalent of two 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) comets, or 2,000 1-kilometer (.62-mile) bodies being pulverized into small flakes every day.

“I was really surprised,” astronomer Bram Acke, with the University of Leuven in Belgium, said in a press release about the discovery. “To me, this was an extremely large number.”

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Extrapolating from the crash results, scientists estimate there must be between 260 billion and 83 trillion comets in the belt, a similar number to what our own solar system’s Oort Cloud contains.

Fomalhaut has some other similarities to our solar system as well, including at least one planet, Fomalhaut b, which was photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. The star is located about 25 light years from Earth.

Images: Fomalhaut and its dust ring in infrared, top, and in visible light, bottom. Credit: European Space Agency/NASA.