Death Zone

Death Zone

A planet in Aquila, the eagle, has fallen to its doom. The giant planet appears to have spiraled into its parent star. The star flared up for a few months, gave a little “burp,” then settled back to normal.

The exoplanet dinner was discovered in 2020 by telescopes on the ground and in space. Astronomers used bigger telescopes to examine the system in detail. A new analysis of those observations revealed the likely nature of the event.

The star is roughly the same mass as the Sun. But it’s past the prime of life, so it’s puffed up, pushing its surface out toward any planets that might orbit the star. One planet was about the size of Jupiter, the giant of our own solar system. The planet slowed down as it passed through gas and dust expelled by the dying star. Eventually, it slowed enough that it spiraled into the star.

That produced a bright outburst. It reached its peak in about 10 days, then faded over the following six months. The outburst also produced an eruption of hot gas, including enough hydrogen to make 33 planets as massive as Earth.

Astronomers have seen the aftermath of planetary ingestion in several stars — usually as a “pollution” of heavy elements in the star’s outer layers. But this is the first time they’ve seen it happen — a star gobbling up a planet.

The eagle is high in the southeast at nightfall, marked by its brightest star, Altair. You need a big telescope to see the planet-eating star.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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