Astronomers spot a mysterious object that is spewing dust into space

Astronomers looking at data from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) recently encountered something strange: An object called TIC 400799224 fluctuates in brightness, like a star that is routinely eclipsed. Their analysis of the observations suggests that TIC 400799224 is actually two stars, one of which orbits a mysterious object. The researchers suspect that a large asteroid or perhaps even a small planet is releasing dust clouds that dim the starlight from TESS’s perspective.

Launched in 2018, TESS is tasked with finding exoplanets — worlds beyond our solar system — that pass in front of their host stars, causing observable dips in the star’s brightness. So far, TESS has discovered 172 exoplanets and 4,703 candidate exoplanets await more analysis. These alien worlds help planetary scientists understand the demographics of the universe and the diversity of the existing planets.

TIC 400799224 looks like a binary star or two stars orbiting each other. According to the paper, the stars are about 300 AU apart, with 1 AU being the average distance between the Earth and the sun. The research team is still unsure which star hosts the mysterious object causing the brightness dips. Dimming occurs approximately every 19.77 days, but the length, intensity and shape of the dips vary widely.

The periodicity of the dimming is what leads the team to believe it’s caused by an object in orbit, though the dips don’t occur with every transit, so the team thinks the most likely culprit is a sporadically emitted cloud of dust. Their research is published in The Astronomical Journal.

What makes TIC 400799224 particularly odd is that the suspected dust clouds are larger than researchers would expect, assuming the clouds are a result of the object’s disintegration over time. As a center for astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian press release notes that slow disintegration is what causes the dust clouds emanating from Ceres, a dwarf planet in our solar system.

Other suspected break up Objects have also been found, so TIC 400799224 has a precedent. The researchers will continue to study the system and look at historical data on the brightness of the TIC 400799224, in hopes of better understanding what’s going on out there.

More: Very large telescope images 42 of the largest asteroids in our solar system

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