For the first time, scientists have detected a star swallowing a planet — not just a bite or sting, but one big gulp.
On Wednesday, astronomers announced their observations of what appeared to be a gas giant the size of Jupiter or larger being eaten by its star. The sun-like star had been swelling with age over eons, finally becoming so large that it engulfed the near-orbiting planet.
It’s a grim preview of what will happen to Earth when our sun turns into a red giant and devours the four inner planets.
“If there is any consolation, this will happen in about 5 billion years,” said co-author Morgan MacLeod of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
This galactic feast occurred between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago near the constellation Aquila when the star was about 10 billion years old. As the planet was descending from the stellar vent, the researchers said, there was a rapid burst of light, followed by a long-lasting stream of dust glistening in cool infrared energy.
While there had been previous signs of other planet-gnawing stars and their digestive effects, this was the first time the swallow itself had been observed, according to the study that appeared in the journal. nature.
MIT researcher Kechalai D spotted the bright burst in 2020 while reviewing sky surveys by Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. It took more observations and data analysis to unravel the mystery: instead of a star devouring its companion star, this star devoured its own planet.
Considering the star’s billions of years of age, the swallow itself was very short–occurring in one fell swoop, said Mansi Kasliwal of the California Institute of Technology, who was part of the study.
Carol Haswell, an astrophysicist at Britain’s Open University, who had no role in the research, said the findings were “very plausible”. Haswell led a team in 2010 that used the Hubble Space Telescope to pinpoint the star WASP-12 in the process of eating its planet.
“This is a different kind of eating. This star devoured an entire planet in one gulp,” Haswell said in an email. “By contrast, WASP-12 b and the other hot Jupiters we studied previously are being delicately licked and nibbled.”
Astronomers don’t know if more planets orbit this star at a safer distance. If so, Di said it could be thousands of years before they become the star’s second or third cycle.
Now that they know what to look for, researchers will be looking for more cosmic potions. They suspect that thousands of planets around other stars will suffer the same fate as this one, and eventually our solar system will too.
“Everything we see around us, all the things we built around us, will quickly disappear,” said Dee.
Keshalai D, an infrared transient from a star swallowing a planet, nature (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-05842-x. www.nature.com/articles/s41586-023-05842-x
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