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article imageNew 'Zombie Planet' images shock scientists

By Greta McClain     Jan 11, 2013 in Science
New images from the Hubble Space Telescope have captured a surprising development in the "zombie planet" orbiting the Fomalhaut star.
On Tuesday, NASA released images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope which show a massive debris ring and mysterious planet orbiting the Fomalhaut star. The planet, which is officially known as Fomalhaut b, but is commonly dubbed "the zombie planet", has appeared and disappeared from view over time. Astronomers now believe that the planet's "hide and seek" activity is due to its extreme orbit.
According to a Hubble Telescope news release, the unusual orbit of the planet will bring it to within 4.6 billion miles of its star at one point, while later being as far as 27 billion miles from the star. The extreme orbit means it takes the planet 2,000 years to completely orbit its sun. According to Universe Today, the earth is 92.96 million miles from the sun, and a complete orbit only takes 365 days. Pluto, the most distant planet in our solar system, has an orbit of 3.67 billion miles away from the sun.
Paul Kalas, a scientist wtih the University of California at Berkeley and leader of the team studying the latest images, called the new information shocking, saying:
"We are shocked. This is not what we expected."
A Planet Save report quotes Kalas as also saying the extreme orbit could be caused by a variety of things. He goes on to say:
“Among several scenarios to explain Fomalhaut b’s 2,000-year-long orbit is the hypothesis that an as yet undiscovered planet gravitationally ejected Fomalhaut b from a position closer to the star, and sent it flying in an orbit that extends beyond the dust belt.”
When describing Formalhaut b and the debris ring, Mark Clampin, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, says:
"Hot Jupiters get tossed through scattering events, where one planet goes in and one gets thrown out. This could be the planet that gets thrown out."
In a press release, NASA says the Hubble images also indicate that the debris belt around the star is much more massive then they originally thought, covering a section of space of 14 to nearly 20 billion miles from the star. The images lead astronomers to believe that the unusual elliptical orbit of the planet will carry it into a direct, and potentially destructive path through the debris ring.
Debris field and orbit of Fomalhaut b.
Debris field and orbit of Fomalhaut b.
Hubble Telescope/NASA
If the orbit does indeed bring the planet into the debris belt, astronomers expect it to happen some time in 2032. NASA scientist believe that when the planet enters the debris ring, icy and rocky debris may crash into the planet's atmosphere, creating "cosmic fireworks [like those] seen when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter."
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