A possible planet, some 1,500 light years away, that appears to be evaporating under the scorching heat of its parent star have been detected by researchers at MIT, NASA and elsewhere.
The scientists conclude that a long tail of debris very much similar to the tail of a comet, may tell the story of the planet’s decomposition. An extra-solar planet, or exoplanet, is a planet outside the Solar System. According to the team’s calculations, the tiny exoplanet, a little larger than Mercury, will completely disintegrate within 100 million years.
The team found that the exoplanet orbits its parent star every 15 hours, which is one of the shortest planet orbits ever observed. Such a short orbit implies that the planet must be heated by its orange-hot parent star to a temperature of about 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit.
Researchers speculate that the rocky material at the surface of the planet melts and evaporates at such high temperatures, forming a wind that carries both gas and dust into space. Dense clouds of the dust trail the planet as it speeds around its star.
“We think this dust is made up of submicron-sized particles,” says co-author Saul Rappaport, a professor emeritus of physics at MIT. “It would be like looking through a Los Angeles smog.”
Rappaport says there are two possible explanations for how the planetary dust might form. One, it might erupt as ash from surface volcanoes, or secondly, it could form from metals that are vaporized by high temperatures and then condense into dust.
"This might be another way in which planets are eventually doomed," says Dan Fabrycky, a member of the Kepler Observatory science team.
"A lot of research has come to the conclusion that planets are not eternal objects, they can die extraordinary deaths, and this might be a case where the planet might evaporate entirely in the future."
The findings were based on the data from Kepler Observatory, a space-based telescope that surveys more than 160,000 stars in the Milky Way. The observatory records the brightness of each star at regular intervals; scientists then analyze the data for signs of new planets outside our own solar system.
The group’s findings were published in the Astrophysical Journal.