Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) — For the first time, scientists have caught a star in the act of swallowing a planet — not just a nibble or a bite, but a giant shake.
Astronomers on Wednesday reported observations of what appeared to be a gas giant around the size of Jupiter, or eaten by its star. The Sun-like star swelled with age over the years until it finally became so large that it engulfed the closely orbiting planet.
This is a dark preview of what will happen to Earth when our Sun becomes a red giant and swallows the four inner planets.
“If it’s any consolation, this will happen in about 5 billion years,” said co-author Morgan MacLeod of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
This star party was 10,000 to 15,000 years ago near the Aquila constellation and the star is 10 billion years old. As the planet passed below the star’s orbit, there was a quick burst of hot light, followed by a long burst of dust that glowed brightly in cool infrared energy, the researchers said.
According to the study, which appears in the journal Nature, this is the first time that planets have been swallowed by other stars and after their digestion.
While reviewing sky scans taken by the California Institute of Technology’s Palomar Observatory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Kishale D spotted the bright burst on 2020. It took more observations and data crunching to unravel the mystery: Instead of a star swallowing its companion star, it swallowed its planet.
With a star’s lifespan of billions of years, the swallows were very brief — essentially happening in one fell swoop, said Caltech’s Mansi Ghazliwal, who was part of the study.
The findings are “very plausible,” said Carol Haswell, an astrophysicist at Britain’s Open University who had no part in the research. Haswell led a team in 2010 using the Hubble Space Telescope to identify the star WASP-12 in its planet-eating process.
“It’s a different diet. This star swallowed an entire planet in one go,” Haswell said in an email. “In contrast, WASP-12 b and other hot Jupiters we’ve studied before are being subtly licked and licked.”
Astronomers don’t know if more planets orbit this star at a safe distance. If so, they could have thousands of years to become the second or third subject of the star, said Dee.
Now that they know what to look for, researchers will look for more cosmic shakes. They suspect that thousands of planets around other stars will suffer the same fate, and eventually, our own solar system.
“Everything we see around us, everything we’ve built around us, it all disappears in a flash,” Dee said.
The Associated Press receives support from the Health and Science Department of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Education Media Group. AP is solely responsible for all content.