Red supergiant engulfing a Jupiter-like planet

An international team of astronomers have discovered the first evidence of a planet’s destruction by its aging star. The evidence indicates that the missing planet was devoured as the star began expanding into a “red giant” (advanced aged star).  An artist’s impression of a red supergiant engulfing a Jupiter-like planet as it expands. Credit: NASA

“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, an Evan Pugh Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, University, who is one of the members of the research team. Wolszczan also is the discoverer of the first planet ever found outside our solar system.

The astronomers also discovered a massive planet in a surprisingly elliptical orbit around the same red-giant star, named BD+48 740, which is older than the Sun with a radius about eleven times bigger. Wolszczan and the team’s other members, Monika Adamow, Grzegorz Nowak, and Andrzej Niedzielski of Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland; and Eva Villaver of the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain, detected evidence of the missing planet’s destruction while they were using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope to study the aging star and to search for planets around it. The evidence includes the star’s peculiar chemical composition, plus the highly unusual elliptical orbit of its surviving planet.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope.   Credit: Marty Harris/McDonald Obs./UT-Austin

“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,” Adamow said. 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.”

[ Barbara K. Kennedy ]

Red Giant

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Five or so billion years from now, Earth’s present orbit won’t be a good place to be as the Sun swells dramatically before dying to its white dwarf stage.