UC Berkeley research astronomer Barry Welsh and his colleague, Sharon Montgomery of Clarion University, have detected flickers of gas emanating from evaporating comets in the heat of Eta Corvi, as first reported by the journal Scientific American.
Located about 59 light years away, Eta Corvi is a star that is slightly larger and three times younger than the sun, according to Scientific American. Welsh and Montgomery believe that planets around Eta Corvi could be shifting comet material away from the outer belt like “a celestial game of hot potato.”
According to Scientific American, the “hot potato” phenomenon is caused by a planet’s gravitational pull. The planets attract and carry material from debris disks in the outer belt, moving debris among planets until frozen comets land in the inner belt and melt into comet tails of dust and gas.
Welsh called Eta Corvi “a potential solar system in the making” because its gas flickers indicate the possibility of planets hidden within surrounding rings, according to Scientific American.
Theorists believe similar gravitational interactions occurred in the solar system when the sun was around Eta Corvi’s present age, resulting in late heavy bombardment when debris collides with the planets. This process was crucial in bringing water and organic compounds to Earth, according to Scientific American.
According to Scientific American, Eta Corvi’s debris rings are farther away than the rings of debris in the solar system, but Eta Corvi’s impact is felt on the same scale because it burns hotter and brighter than the sun. Astronomer Carey Lisse said in Scientific American that if Eta Corvi is comparable to the solar system, studying it would resolve uncertainties about LHB and reveal more about this process in other stars.
Although no planets are confirmed to orbit Eta Corvi, Welsh and Montgomery plan to continue observing the star because of the strong indirect evidence for potential planetary existence. According to Lisse in Scientific American, new technology in the next decade may reveal more about the star and our own solar system.