Solving the mystery of the Fomalhaut exocellular asteroid belt

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The secret behind the great success of science is its ability to correct itself and improve over time. The combination of different studies, worked under different perspectives of the authors and the comparison between several measurements allows to test every angle of a hypothesis and to get closer to the correct answer. An example of this is a correction of a misinterpretation of the data in the so-called Fomalhaut Large Dust Cloud.

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Comparison between three different perspectives of the Fomalhaut system captured by Hubble, Herschel and ALMA.

Asteroid exocinturon

On May 8, the team behind the James Webb Space Telescope announced the best image yet taken of the debris disk surrounding the star Fomalhaut. It showed incredible mid-infrared detail from the first direct, high-resolution observation of an asteroid belt analog in another star system.

In the image, apart from clearly differentiating the three asteroid rings or belts, a spot stands out in the central right region. This was dubbed as the Large Dust Cloud or Great Dust Cloud. It was originally believed to be a zone of strong interaction and collision between fragments or protoplanets, the latter causing a large expanding dust cloud.

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Labeled image showing the different parts of the asteroid regions in the image. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, A. Pagan (STScI), A. Gáspár (University of Arizona).

The Large Dust Cloud was previously detected and studied thanks to the Keck and ALMA observatories and the Hubble Space Telescope. It was first seen in 2008, until its disappearance in 2014. With the new James Webb data, a very similar structure was found, which was thought to have formed similarly to the first one. However, a new study shows a completely different phenomenon.

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Francisco Andrés Forero Daza