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Another Kuiper Belt Discovered Around Nearby Star

A nearby star system has been discovered sporting its own Kuiper belt -- a region populated with ancient icy comets and asteroids.

Astronomers have discovered an icy belt of comets circling a young sun-like star, a finding that may provide insights into the evolution of our own solar system.

The star, known as HD 181327, is about 23 million years old and located about 160 light-years away in the Painter constellation.

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The star is surrounded by a dust ring, which is believed to be debris from impacting comets, asteroids and other bodies. The star may have planets in orbit as well, but they cannot be detected with current technology.

Using data from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescopes in northern Chile, scientists discovered low concentrations of carbon monoxide gas in HD 181327's dust ring. The amount of gas is similar to what is found in comets in our own solar system.

The gas would have been released during the same collisions that formed HD 181327′s dust ring.

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Colorized ALMA image of the ring of comets around the sun-like star HD 181327. The white contours represent the size of our solar system's Kuiper Belt. | Amanda Smith/University of Cambridge

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"The system has a similar ice composition to our own, so it's a good one to study in order to learn what our solar system looked like early in its existence," Sebastián Marino, a University of Cambridge PhD astronomy student, said in a press release.

Previously, carbon monoxide gas has been found only around stars that are much more massive than the sun. HD 181327, by contrast, is just about 30 percent bigger than the sun.

The research was presented at an astronomy conference in Santiago, Chile, on Wednesday and will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Artist's impression of a Kuiper Belt around a sun-like star, including dust, comets and asteroids.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is finally complete, after the project's final 12-meter antenna was handed over on Sept. 30, 2013. The 66th dish, shown here, is the last of 25 European-built instruments. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) is a collaboration between the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ).

All 66 millimetre/submillimetre-wave radio antennas are expected to be operational by the end of 2013, working together as one large telescope. ALMA will operate as an interferometer, spread over 16 kilometers of the Chajnantor Plateau in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

ALMA is sensitive to millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths, between infrared light and radio waves in the electromagnetic spectrum, a range that will help astronomers peel back the veil on distant objects in the Cosmos.

The giant antenna transporter, called Otto, delivers the final antenna to the array on Sept. 30, 2013.

The final dish was built by the European AEM Consortium, the largest of the project's contracts. North America delivered 25 12-meter antennas and East Asia delivered 16 (four 12-meter and twelve 7-meter).

"This is an important milestone for the ALMA Observatory since it enables astronomers in Europe and elsewhere to use the complete ALMA telescope, with its full sensitivity and collecting area," said Wolfgang Wild, the European ALMA Project Manager.

An artist's impression of the complete ALMA array in the Atacama Desert.

Possibly breaking the record for altitude record for a radio controlled hexacopter, this aerial photograph of ALMA in the extreme environment of the Atacama Desert in Chile was taken earlier this year.