Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hubble Telescopes Catches Planet Eating Star In The Act

WASP-12b being devoured by its star. NASA image.

Old telescopes can learn new tricks and this fact was put in the spotlight recently by a new discovery made by the Hubble Space Telescope. Using instruments installed in 2009, Hubble has discovered a planet that is in the process of being devoured by its parent star.

The planet, WASP-12b, was first discovered in 2008 and has the highest recorded surface temperature of any planet to date, 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Why so hot? The planet is so close to its star (about 2 million miles away) that it orbits it in just over a day! Needless to say, we should look elsewhere for life. The planet is also about 40 times as massive as Jupiter. These discoveries were all and good until 2009, when some new gear was added to Hubble.

In the last service mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, due to be replaced in the near future, astronauts added an instrument called the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph. The new instrument immediately revealed some new information about WASP-12b:

The planet is doomed.

Using the new Hubble add-on, scientists quickly determined that the planet was being thrown into a highly eccentric (oval) orbit around its parent star. Even more remarkable is the fact that the planet is egg-shaped (from tidal forces) and that there is a huge cloud of material around the planet, which confirms a theory written in a paper last year stating that, as a planet gets too close to its star, its surface will be ripped away and it the atmosphere will expand, too. Using the spectrograph, scientists have found elements never seen outside our solar system before, too.

Want to watch the planet get swallowed? Well, don't get too excited. This will be a long process that scientists estimate will fully take place in the next 10 million years. Oh yes, the action is taking place about 600 light years away.

Humble requests:

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