We all like a hot meal, but this is really bizarre. Back in February, Jean wrote an article about WASP-12b, the hottest known planet in the Milky Way that is being ripped to shreds by its parent star. Shu-lin Li of the Department of Astronomy at the Peking University, Beijing, predicted that the star’s gravity would distort the planet’s surface and make the interior of the planet so hot that the atmosphere would expand out and co-mingle with the star. Shu-lin calculated the planet would one day be completely consumed. Now the Hubble Space Telescope has confirmed this prediction, and astronomers estimate the planet may only have another 10 million years left before it is completely devoured.
Using the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), and its sensitive ultraviolet instruments, astronomers saw that the star and the planet’s atmosphere share elements, passing them back and forth. “We see a huge cloud of material around the planet, which is escaping and will be captured by the star. We have identified chemical elements never before seen on planets outside our own solar system,” says team leader Carole Haswell of The Open University in Great Britain.
This effect of matter exchange between two stellar objects is commonly seen in close binary star systems, but this is the first time it has been seen so clearly for a planet.
The planet, called WASP-12b, is so close to its sunlike star that it completes an orbit in 1.1 days, and is heated to nearly 1,540 C (2,800 F) and stretched into a football shape by enormous tidal forces. The atmosphere has ballooned to nearly three times Jupiter’s radius and is spilling material onto the star. The planet is 40 percent more massive than Jupiter.
WASP-12 is a yellow dwarf star located approximately 600 light-years away in the winter constellation Auriga.
Haswell and her science team’s results were published in the May 10, 2010 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.