First Evidence Of A Star Devouring A Planet

Posted: Jul 19 2018, 4:59am CDT | by , in News | Latest Science News

 
First Evidence of a Star Devouring a Planet
This artist's illustration depicts the destruction of a young planet, which scientists may have witnessed for the first time. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Using X-ray data, researchers have found evidence for what may have caused the most recent dip in the brightness of a young star in the Taurus-Auriga constellation

A cosmic event captured by NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory has led astronomers to believe they have witnessed a young star feeding on a planet. This is the first time a study has shown that stars can devour planets.

A young star that resides in the Taurus-Auriga constellation some 450 light years from Earth has been of great interest to astronomers for nearly a century. The star, named RW Aur A, experiences major dips in brightness every few decades. In recent years, these dimming events have become more frequent and longer. So astronomers wondered what could be causing these unusual dips. Using NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory, they have found evidence for a collision between two infant planetary bodies. The collision produced a dense cloud of gas and dust. When this planetary debris fell into the star, it generated a thick haze and temporarily obscured the star's light.

“Computer simulations have long predicted that planets can fall into a young star, but we have never before observed that," said lead author Hans Moritz Guenther, a research scientist in MIT. "If our interpretation of the data is correct, this would be the first time that we directly observe a young star devouring a planet or planets.”

Young stars are formed by the gravitational collapse of gas and dust within clouds and some of them are surrounded by a rotating disk of debris. Taurus-Auriga Dark Clouds have been under study for many years because they can help reveal some of the chaotic processes that take place early in a star's development.

"If you look at our solar system, we have planets and not a massive disk around the sun," said Guenther. "These disks last for maybe 5 million to 10 million years, and in Taurus, there are many stars that have already lost their disk, but a few still have them. If you want to know what happens in the end stages of this disk dispersal, Taurus is one of the places to look."

RW Aur A in the Taurus is famous for its odd dips in brightness for decades. In January 2017, researchers have reported that the star recently dimmed again and NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory recorded the X-ray emission from the star. When researchers analyzed the data, they found that the star is much hotter than expected and the disk contains much more iron than expected.

Researchers advanced many theories for this excess iron but the most likely explanation is a mash-up of two planetary bodies. If one or both planets are made of iron, their collision could release a large amount of iron into the star's disk and temporarily obscure its light as the material falls into the star.

"There are many processes that happen in young stars, but these two scenarios could possibly make something that looks like what we observed," said Guenther.

"Much effort currently goes into learning about exoplanets and how they form, so it is obviously very important to see how young planets could be destroyed in interactions with their host stars and other young planets, and what factors determine if they survive.”

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The Author

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir. With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.

 

 

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