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Doomed Giant

December 8, 2017

A giant planet that’s orbiting a Sun-like star appears to be in its final days. A recent study says the planet could disintegrate and fall into its sun in about three million years.

The system is known as WASP-12. It’s about 870 light-years away. The star is a bit bigger, hotter, and heavier than the Sun. And the planet, WASP-12b, is similar to Jupiter, the giant of our own solar system — a big ball of gas, perhaps wrapped around a solid core.

The planet and star are quite close together — just a quarter of the distance between Earth and the Sun. At that range, the side of the planet that faces the star sizzles at thousands of degrees. Some of the planet’s atmosphere is being blown out into space by the star’s wind and radiation. And the planet is warped by the star’s gravitational pull, so it’s shaped a bit like an egg, with the tapered end facing the star.

The study says the planet appears to be spiraling closer to the star. The star’s gravity could soon rip the planet apart. And the remains could fall onto the star in about 3.2 million years — ending the life of a planetary giant.

WASP-12 is too faint to see with the eye alone. But its constellation, Auriga the charioteer, is in good view on December nights. Right now, it’s low in the east-northeast at nightfall. It’s easy to find because its leading light, yellow-orange Capella, is one of the brightest stars in all the night sky.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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