Spitzer Spots Comet Storm in a Nearby Solar System

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NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, a 950-kilogram infrared observatory launched aboard a Delta 2 rocket in 2003, has detected signs of icy bodies raining down in a nearby solar system, the U.S. space agency announced Oct. 19.

The downpour resembles the Earth’s own solar system several billion years ago during a period known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, when comets and other objects flung from the outer solar system pummeled the inner planets, possibly bringing water and other ingredients of life to Earth, NASA said.

Astronomers using Spitzer’s infrared detectors have spotted a band of dust around a nearby bright star called Eta Corvi. The dust strongly matches the content of an obliterated giant comet and is located close enough to Eta Corvi that Earth-like worlds could exist.

“We believe we have direct evidence for an ongoing Late Heavy Bombardment in the nearby star system Eta Corvi, occurring about the same time as in our solar system,” Carey Lisse, a senior research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and lead author of a paper detailing the findings, said in a statement. The research will be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

The Spitzer spacecraft was built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems; Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. developed Spitzer’s cryogenically cooled telescope assembly.