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Astronomers find first evidence of an aging star eating its own planet

One News Page Staff
Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Astronomers find first evidence of an aging star eating its own planetby

For the first time, astronomers have seen evidence of an aging star devouring its own planet - in a similar way as our sun will once consume Earth

The outlook for the future of Planet Earth is rather depressing, as scientists predict the sun's death in around five billion years from now.

At that time, our star will transform into a red giant which is so large that the Earth's current orbit will actually be inside of it.

As five billion years is a rather long time - the sun is around 4.5 billion years of age currently - we still have plenty of time to explore possible alternative homes for the future.

In the meantime, astronomers have observed a similar event occurring in another solar system for the first time.

BD+48 740, a star of similar mass to our sun but expanded to 11 times its size, is reaching the end of its life and has expanded into a red giant devouring its own planet.

Alex Wolszczan from Penn State University led a team of astronomers which found evidence of a missing planet having been consumed by the dying star.

"A similar fate may await the inner planets in our solar system, when the Sun becomes a red giant and expands all the way out to Earth’s orbit some five-billion years from now," Wolszczan, who also discovered the first planet ever found outside our solar system, explained.

The team used two pieces of evidence to describe what happened. Firstly, they found a planet in an unusually elliptic orbit - indicated that another planet must have suddenly gone missing. Secondly, spectral analysis of the star's light revealed an abnormally high amount of lithium, a rare element created primarily during the Big Bang 14 billion years ago.

As lithium is very quickly destroyed in stars, its presence in an old star cannot be explained unless it was recently absorbed.

"In the case of BD+48 740, it is probable that the lithium production was triggered by a mass the size of a planet that spiralled into the star and heated it up while the star was digesting it," Wolszczan explained.

His international team of astronomers discovered the alien culinary spectacular using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the McDonald Observatory in Texas.
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