Planets disappearing isn’t just the stuff of Star Wars.
In 2004, the Hubble Telescope spotted what appeared to be a massive exoplanet, which NASA named Fomalhaut b. The exciting discovery was one of the first times scientists were able to collect images of an exoplanet.
However, in more recent images, it looked as though the planet disappeared into thin air. Now, researchers think it never existed in the first place.
Instead, the exoplanet previously known as Fomalhaut b is likely a “dispersing cloud of dust, produced by a massive collision between two planetesimals,” according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In other words, it’s probably just space trash.
In their study, the researchers laid out what they think happened to the long lost planet. For years, the planet appeared in images as a faint mass orbiting around a star 25 lightyears away from the Milky Way.
But as time went on, the image faded. As of 2014, there was no sighting of the planet on any telescopes. They believe what they were really observing in the Hubble images was two icy objects colliding, leaving an impressive mass of dust that looked similar to a planet.
Astronomers are choosing to look on the bright side: The exoplanet likely never existed to begin with, but at least the alternative explanation is equally fascinating.
“These collisions are exceedingly rare and so this is a big deal that we actually get to see evidence of one,” Andras Gaspar, assistant astronomer at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, said in a statement.