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Death Stars

January 7, 2016

You don’t have to journey to a galaxy far, far away to find a death star. There are plenty of them right here in the Milky Way, destroying their own planets.

Stars are big and hot, so anything that gets too close gets vaporized. In our own solar system, icy comets are destroyed almost every day. And space telescopes have revealed several planets that are being destroyed in other star systems.

In one system, the destruction appears to be taking place in periodic bouts, when the star unleashes massive flares. These explosions produce X-rays that slam into a gas-giant planet that’s only about three million miles away. After one flare, the Kepler spacecraft saw a plume of gas racing away from the planet — a thousand tons a second blasted away by the star.

A couple of other planets have comet-like tails that stream millions of miles into space. The intense heat vaporizes material at the surface, and strong “winds” whisk it off into space.

Even so, these planets are expected to last for millions or billions of years. But a planet discovered a few months ago may have only one million years to go.

The rocky planet orbits close to a white dwarf — the dead core of a once-normal star. The combination of heat and tides is ripping the planet apart, creating a trail of rocky debris around the planet. Much of the pulverized remains will fall onto the white dwarf — “polluting” its surface with the debris from a planet destroyed by a real-life “death star.”

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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