Scientists solve mystery of why 40-million-year-old star seems so young

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Jan 14, 2013, 2:52 PM EST

Like us, stars lose some energy and fade a bit as they age (at least until they explode), but one star, at the ripe old age of 40 million, has baffled scientists for two decades with its amazingly youthful appearance. Now scientists think they've figured out the secret to the star's vitality.

How do you tell if a star looks young? Well, in the case of 49 CETI, it's surrounded by a large amount of gas. That's usually a characteristic that fades by the time a young star reaches its 10 millionth birthday, but 49 CETI is considerably older than that, and yet the gas cloud persists. Scientists have been looking at the gas around 49 CETI since 1995, wondering how it's possible, and now a new study finally has an answer.

According to UCLA physics and astronomy professor Benjamin Zuckerman, who co-authored the study, the gas around 49 CETI is formed into a large disc similar to the Kuiper Belt in our own solar system, except this disc is 4,000 times bigger. But how did it form, and what keeps it so large? According to Zuckerman and his team, the answer is comets. Lots and lots of comets.

"Imagine so many trillions of comets, each the size of the UCLA campus -- approximately 1 mile in diameter -- orbiting around 49 CETI and bashing into one another," Zuckerman said.. "These young comets likely contain more carbon monoxide than typical comets in our solar system. When they collide, the carbon monoxide escapes as a gas."

According to the study's calculations, a comet collision occurs around 49 CETI every six seconds. That means one just happened as you were reading this, and then another, and then another, and then ... well, you get the idea. What's more, Zuckerman and company believe these collisions have been happening for longer than many young stars have existed.

"I was absolutely amazed when we calculated this rapid rate," Zuckerman said. "I would not have dreamt it in a million years. We think these collisions have been occurring for 10 million years or so."

So, if you're a star, the secret to looking young is apparently surround yourself with an extremely hostile environment where everything that orbits you gets smashed to bits.

(Via Huffington Post)