There's a comet-eating monster hiding amongst the stars

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Jun 30, 2014, 5:27 PM EDT

The universe is a vast and mysterious place, and if sci-fi has taught us anything about the heavens, it's that we have no idea what we might find out there. Take for instance the star Beta Pictoris. Instead of a system of planets varying from small rocky orbs to massive gas giants circling it, this star is surrounded by a massive cloud of dust and debris.

The running theory on why Beta Pictoris is home to what amounts to a graveyard of would-be planets is that it was once home to two worlds. The theory continues that these two worlds quite literally collided, leaving only a field of shattered stone and cooling cores.

If that sounds fairly awful for whatever denizens the system ever played host to, it is. But there's a new, even scarier theory concerning the space surrounding Beta Pictoris that's been gaining traction of late. In short: something massive and murderous is lurking in the dark.

Instead of two fairly large planets dashing each other into bits, Beta Pictoris could play home to a single Saturn-sized planet, a planet which astronomers at the ALMA telescope in Chile have yet to precisely locate. This lurking monster of a world has a well of gravity so large that it actually lures in passing asteroids and comets, tearing them apart like a wolf amongst the chickens when they stray too close.

The crumpled bits of comet guts would then be strung along in the planet's wake, creating a massive, dusty cloud of rock around the star. It's not a real, living space monster, but the massive globe hiding in the dust around Beta Pictoris is a predator nonetheless. Space-faring travelers beware.

Science, via New Scientist