Researchers have captured the initial glow of a massive planetary collision in outer space. The study, published in Nature, reports the sighting of two giant ice exoplanets colliding around a sun-like star, creating an explosion of light and dust plumes. The results reveal the heat glow and the subsequent dust cloud, which moved in front of the parent star, obscuring it over time.

An international team of astronomers formed after an enthusiast observed the star’s light curve and noticed something unusual. The system doubled in brightness at infrared wavelengths about three years before the star began to fade in visible light. “To be honest, this observation was a real surprise to me: when we initially shared the visible light curve of this star with other astronomers, we started observing it with a network of other telescopes,” said Matthew Kenworthy of Leiden University, a co-author of the study.

“An astronomer on social media pointed out that the star brightened in the infrared for a thousand days before the optical dimming,” Kenworthy continued. “That’s when I realized it was an unusual event,” he said. The team of professional and amateur astronomers intensely studied the star, also monitoring brightness variations over the following two years.

The star was named ASASSN-21qj, after the name of the telescope network that first detected the star’s fading at visible wavelengths. Researchers concluded that the most likely explanation is that two giant ice exoplanets collided, producing the infrared glow detected by NASA’s NEOWISE mission, which uses a space telescope to hunt for asteroids and comets.

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