For nearly a century, astronomers have puzzled over the curious variability of young stars residing in the Taurus-Auriga constellation some 450 light years from Earth. One star in particular has drawn astronomers’ attention. Every few decades, the star’s light has faded briefly before brightening again.
In recent years, astronomers have observed the star dimming more frequently, and for longer periods, raising the question: What is repeatedly obscuring the star? The answer, astronomers believe, could shed light on some of the chaotic processes that take place early in a star’s development.
Now physicists from MIT and elsewhere have observed the star, named RW Aur A, using NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory. They’ve found evidence for what may have caused its most recent dimming event: a collision of two infant planetary bodies, which produced in its aftermath a dense cloud of gas and dust. As this planetary debris fell into the star, it generated a thick veil, temporarily obscuring the star’s light.