JWST captures images of the first asteroid belts seen beyond the Solar System

One of the belts raises the possibility that the Fomalhaut system contains undiscovered planets.

One of the night sky's brightest stars, Fomalhaut, is located around 25 light years from Earth. Astronomers have been fascinated by the Fomalhaut system for many years, but it is only now that we are beginning to grasp it better owing to the James Webb Space Telescope. The Fomalhaut system is much more complicated than previously believed, according to a study that was published in the journal Nature Astronomy on Monday by a team of researchers led by astronomers from the University of Arizona and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Since 1983, astronomers have known that the 440 million-year-old Fomalhaut is encircled by dust and debris, but they weren't prepared for the discovery of three distinct debris fields. One of them, the one nearest to Fomalhaut, resembles the asteroid belt in our solar system but is far larger than anticipated. According to the New Scientist, Fomalhaut's inner asteroid belt extends from the star to roughly 80 astronomical units away, or around seven astronomical units away. To put such figures in context, the inner asteroid belt is approximately 10 times wider than scientists anticipated.

But even that isn't the most fascinating aspect of the Fomalhaut system. A second debris belt exists outside of Fomalhaut's inner asteroid belt and is inclined 23 degrees away from the rest of the objects in the star's orbit. According to the study's principal scientist, András Gáspár, "this is a truly unique aspect of the system," Science News. He said that the skewed belt may be the consequence of planets in the Fomalhaut system that have not yet been found by astronomers.

"The belts around Fomalhaut are kind of like a mystery novel: Where are the planets?" one of the astronomers working on the project, George Rieke. "I don't believe it's a very big leap to say there's probably a really interesting planetary system around the star," the author said.

An outer debris ring that resembles the Kuiper belt in our solar system is located further away from Fomalhaut. It has a characteristic that Gáspár and his associates have dubbed the Great Dust Cloud. They believe that this structure was created when two space rocks that were more than 400 miles apart collided. It is uncertain if this feature is a component of the Fomalhaut system or something beaming from beyond it. According to Gáspár and colleagues, Fomalhaut may be orbited by three or more planets that are comparable in size to Uranus and Neptune. In order to determine if those planetoids exist, they are now examining JWST photos.