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Astronomers think 'winking' star is consuming cloud of planetary debris

Dec. 22 (UPI) — New data suggests a unique ‘winking’ star located 550 light-years from Earth is consuming remnants of wrecked planets.

Astronomers believe the periodic dimming of RZ Piscium, a star found in the constellation Pisces, is caused by a giant orbiting cloud of dust formed by the debris of one or more disintegrating planets.

Normally, the large discs of dust and debris found around young stars disperse after a few million years. But RZ Piscium is between 30 million and 50 million years old and the dimming episodes persist, sometimes last a couple of days.

“I’ve been studying young stars near Earth for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this one,” Benjamin Zuckerman, a professor of astronomy at UCLA, said in a news release. “Most sun-like stars have lost their planet-forming disks within a few million years of their birth. The fact that RZ Piscium hosts so much gas and dust after tens of millions of years means it’s probably destroying, rather than building, planets.”

RZ Piscium produces larger amounts of infrared radiation than the sun, which suggests the star is surrounded by a warm ring of dust. Roughly 8 percent of the star’s radiation is emitted in the form of infrared wavelengths, putting the star in rare company. Only a handful of other stars within a few hundred light-years of the solar system emit similar amount of infrared radiation.

Scientists detailed their analysis of RZ Piscium in the Astronomical Journal.

“Our observations show there are massive blobs of dust and gas that occasionally block the star’s light and are probably spiraling into it,” said Kristina Punzi, a doctoral student at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Spectral analysis revealed the star’s lithium levels, which allowed scientists estimate the star’s age. Analysis also revealed the star’s surface temperature, 9,600 degrees Fahrenheit, just a bit cooler than the sun. Scientists were also able to measure the temperature of the dust, 450 degrees Fahrenheit, which suggests the cloud is orbiting 30 million miles from the star.

While astronomers believe planetary collisions are the most likely source of the dust cloud surrounding RZ Piscium, they suggest it’s also possible the star is stealing material from a stellar companion.

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