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A Nasa space telescope has found evidence of a high-speed collision between two burgeoning planets orbiting a young star. Astronomers say the cosmic smash-up is similar to the one that formed our Moon some four billion years ago, when a Mars-sized object crashed into Earth. In this case, two rocky bodies are thought to have slammed into one another in the last few thousand years. Details are to be published in the Astrophysical Journal. The collision involved one object that was at least as big as our Moon and another that was at least as big as Mercury. The impact destroyed the smaller body, vaporising huge amounts of rock and flinging plumes of hot lava into space. Infrared detectors on Nasa's Spitzer Space Telescope were able to pick up the signatures of the vaporised rock, along with fragments of hardened lava, known as tektites. Melted glass "This collision had to be huge and incredibly high-speed for rock to have been vaporised and melted," said lead author Carey M Lisse of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, US. "This is a really rare and short-lived event, critical in the formation of Earth-like planets and moons. We're lucky to have witnessed one not long after it happened."
Though the model covers only a day's time, Canup said shortly thereafter the material in outer regions began to cool. Gradually, small clumps would have formed, collided with one another, and grown. Based on other models, she said it would have taken between 1 and 100 years to make a Moon after the impact.