A First: Star Caught in the Act of Devouring a Planet

redgiant

Astronomers have witnessed the first evidence of a planet’s destruction by its aging star as it expands into a red giant.

“A similar fate may await the inner planets in our solar system, when the Sun becomes a red giant and expands all the way out to Earth’s orbit some five-billion years from now,” said Alex Wolszczan, from Penn State, University, who led a team which found evidence of a missing planet having been devoured by its parent star. Wolszczan also is the discoverer of the first planet ever found outside our solar system.
The planet-eating culprit, a red-giant star named BD+48 740 is older than the Sun and now has a radius about eleven times bigger than our Sun.

The evidence the astronomers found was a massive planet in a surprising highly elliptical orbit around the star – indicating a missing planet — plus the star’s wacky chemical composition.

“Our detailed spectroscopic analysis reveals that this red-giant star, BD+48 740, contains an abnormally high amount of lithium, a rare element created primarily during the Big Bang 14 billion years ago,” said team member Monika Adamow from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland. “Lithium is easily destroyed in stars, which is why its abnormally high abundance in this older star is so unusual.

“Theorists have identified only a few, very specific circumstances, other than the Big Bang, under which lithium can be created in stars,” Wolszczan added. “In the case of BD+48 740, it is probable that the lithium production was triggered by a mass the size of a planet that spiraled into the star and heated it up while the star was digesting it.”

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The other piece of evidence discovered by the astronomers is the highly elliptical orbit of the star’s newly discovered massive planet, which is at least 1.6 times as massive as Jupiter.

“We discovered that this planet revolves around the star in an orbit that is only slightly wider than that of Mars at its narrowest point, but is much more extended at its farthest point,” said Andrzej Niedzielski, also from Nicolaus Copernicus University. “Such orbits are uncommon in planetary systems around evolved stars and, in fact, the BD+48 740 planet’s orbit is the most elliptical one detected so far.”

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