Photos published by NASA yesterday show a complex ring system that surrounds a young nearby star called Fomalhaut.
The dusty structures are “much more complex” than either the asteroid belt or the Kuiper belt in our own solar system, according to NASA. The system is made of three nested belts — scientists knew about the outer belt, but the James Webb Space Telescope visualized the inner belts for the first time.
The belts extend out to 14 billion miles from the star, which is 150 times the distance of Earth from the Sun. The scale of the outer belt is roughly twice the scale of the Kuiper belt of cold dust in our own solar system beyond Neptune, according to NASA.
Fomalhaut is visible to the naked eye; it’s the brightest star in the southern constellation Piscis Austrinus. Its outer ring was discovered in 1983 by an infrared telescope, and the new finer details from the James Webb Space Telescope give scientists a better understanding of what the space around Fomalhaut might look like.
“I think it’s not a very big leap to say there’s probably a really interesting planetary system around the star,” said George Rieke, a member of James Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument team.
Discovering the inner belts was unexpected, said Schuyler Wolff, a team member at the University of Arizona in Tucson who analyzed the telescope data.
“That structure is very exciting because any time an astronomer sees a gap and rings in a disk, they say, ‘There could be an embedded planet shaping the rings!,’ ” Wolff said.
The Webb telescope, an international collaboration, was launched out of French Guinea at the end of 2021. The telescope itself is in orbit around the Sun, a million miles away from Earth. Its first images were released to the public last summer.
The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore operates the telescope. Employees in Baltimore have been involved in the project, including turning the data collected by the telescope into color images.