(Cape Canaveral, Florida) – For the first time, scientists have caught a star in the process of swallowing the planet – not just a bite or bite, but one big gulp.
Astronomers on Wednesday reported their observations of what appeared to be a Jupiter-sized or larger gas giant being devoured by its star. The solar star swelled with age for thousands of years and finally became so large that it swallowed up a planet in close orbit.
This is a grim preview of what will happen to Earth when our Sun becomes a red giant and engulfs the four inner planets.
“If it’s any consolation, it will happen in about 5 billion years,” said co-author Morgan Macleod of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
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This galactic feast took place between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago near the constellation Aquila, when the star was about 10 billion years old. As the planet descended into the stellar hatch, there was a quick burst of hot light, followed by a continuous stream of dust that shone brightly in cold infrared energy, the researchers said.
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Despite earlier indications of other stars gnawing at planets and their digestive effects, this is the first time the swallow itself has been observed, according to a study published in the journal Nature.
MIT researcher Kishalay De spotted the flash of light in 2020 while viewing sky images taken by Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. It took more observations and data processing to unravel the mystery: instead of a star swallowing its companion star, this star swallowed its planet.
Considering a star’s lifespan is billions of years, the ingestion itself was fairly short—essentially in one fell swoop, said Caltech’s Mansi Kasliwal, who participated in the study.
The findings are “very plausible,” said Carol Haswell, an astrophysicist at the British Open University who was not involved in the study. In 2010, Haswell led a team that used the Hubble Space Telescope to identify the star WASP-12 in the process of eating its planet.
“It’s a different kind of food. This star swallowed an entire planet in one gulp,” Haswell wrote in an email. “In contrast, WASP-12 b and other hot Jupiters we’ve previously studied lick and bite delicately.”
Astronomers don’t know if there are more planets orbiting this star at a safer distance. If so, De said, they could have thousands of years before they become second- or third-year stars.
Now that they know what to look for, explorers will look for new space gulps. They suspect that thousands of planets around other stars will suffer the same fate as this one, and ultimately our solar system.
“Everything that we see around us, everything that we have built around ourselves, will disappear in the blink of an eye,” De said.
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