An illustration released by NASA depicts the result of a collision between two large asteroid-sized bodies: a massive debris cloud around a young star. (image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This month, NASA is excited to report a dustup of truly universal proportions! Since 2015, a group of astronomers led by Kate Su of the University of Arizona has made more than 100 observations of a 10 million-year-old star called HD 166191, working on the theory that they might be able to capture evidence of the type of massive collisions that form planetary systems.

Ten million years is kids’ stuff in star time, so HD 166191 is still surrounded by the dust from its formation, which variously smashes together or breaks apart to form celestial bodies. While the subjects in question are too far away to capture footage of collisions, the team was able to report the first observations of a debris cloud — literal stardust that passed between the star and the now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope, briefly blocking the light and allowing astronomers to envision what such an event looks like. Their findings were published earlier this month in the Astrophysics Journal.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has revisited the famous Pillars of Creation in the M16 Eagle Nebula, revealing a sharper and wider view of the structures in this visible-light image. (image courtesy NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

“We show that the debris production in this young system increased significantly in early 2018 and reached a record high level (almost double by mid 2019) by the end of the Spitzer mission (early 2020),” reads the study’s abstract. The findings suggest intense collisional activity in the system’s terrestrial zone, due to either “initial assembling of terrestrial planets through giant impacts or dynamical shake-up from unseen planet-mass objects or recent planet migration.”

This is possibly the most excited the scientific community has ever been about dust, even exceeding enthusiasm about the so-called “Pillars of Creation” at the heart of the M16 (Eagle Nebula) cluster.

“By looking at dusty debris disks around young stars, we can essentially look back in time and see the processes that may have shaped our own solar system,” Su said in a statement from NASA. “Learning about the outcome of collisions in these systems, we may also get a better idea of how frequently rocky planets form around other stars.”

By combining the Spitzer telescope’s observation of the transit with data from telescopes on the ground, the team could extrapolate information about the size and shape of the debris cloud. As we know from last month’s space news, stars can get up to all kinds of fascinating things, including awkward threesomes. Stars — they’re just like us!

While the report is highly technical, the observations have afforded researchers the ability to create an illustration of the cosmic smashup, so even art school kids can get in on the excitement. It is a trite truism to say that we are all made of stardust, but the evidence drawn from these new observations demonstrates the truly awesome nature of that scientific reality.  

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....