Although originally thought to be a massive exoplanet, the faintness of Fomalhaut b in the infrared and its failure to perturb Fomalhaut's debris ring indicate a low mass. We use all available data to reveal that it has faded in brightness and grown in extent, with motion consistent with an escaping orbit. This behavior confirms suggestions that the source is a dispersing cloud of dust, produced by a massive collision between two planetesimals. The visible signature appears to be very fine dust escaping under the influence of radiation pressure. Such events should be rare in quiescent planetary systems at the age of Fomalhaut, suggesting increased dynamical activity within the system possibly due to orbital migration of hypothetical planets.The apparent detection of an exoplanet orbiting Fomalhaut was announced in 2008. However, subsequent observations of Fomalhaut b raised questions about its status: Unlike other exoplanets, it is bright in the optical and nondetected in the infrared, and its orbit appears to cross the debris ring around the star without the expected gravitational perturbations. We revisit previously published data and analyze additional Hubble Space Telescope (HST) data, finding that the source is likely on a radial trajectory and has faded and become extended. Dynamical and collisional modeling of a recently produced dust cloud yields results consistent with the observations. Fomalhaut b appears to be a directly imaged catastrophic collision between two large planetesimals in an extrasolar planetary system. Similar events should be very rare in quiescent planetary systems of the age of Fomalhaut, suggesting that we are possibly witnessing the effects of gravitational stirring due to the orbital evolution of hypothetical planet(s) around the star.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Science
- Pub Date:
- April 2020
- Astrophysics - Earth and Planetary Astrophysics;
- Astrophysics - Solar and Stellar Astrophysics
- 12 pages, 9 figures, accepted to PNAS