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Six hundred light-years from Earth, a huge exoplanet circling close to its home star is slowly, inexorably being devoured.
WASP 12B orbits just 2 million miles from its star, which means the surface of the planet reaches temperatures over 2,800 Fahrenheit. The sun’s gravitational pull is stronger on the front surface of the planet than on the back, so the planet has been pulled into a football shape. If you were floating on the gaseous planet, and looking heavenward, the sun would take up nearly the entire sky.
And in the next 10 million years, the star that so dominates the planet will destroy it, according to a paper published in May in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
It’s not exactly the kind of solar system that human beings anticipated finding in the great beyond.
“All sorts of things that we would never expected to find we’re finding,” said Carole Haswell, an astronomer at The Open University in Great Britain and the lead author on the new paper. “Our preconceptions about what planetary systems might look like were shaped by what our own solar system looked like, particularly Star Trek,” she joked.
She and her team used the Hubble Space Telescope’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph to investigate the planet by looking in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum.
“The near ultraviolet is a very sensitive probe to the presence of stuff and that allows you to deduce an effective radius for the planet,” she said.
WASP 12B has a puffed up atmosphere that its star is siphoning off. That observation happily matches theoretical predictions made just a few months ago by astronomer Shu-lin Li at Peking University, Beijing. The confirmation shows yet again that exoplanetology, particularly the study of other solar systems not just individual planets, is advancing at a breakneck pace.
“It is a really nice example of theorists predicting something and we’d already observed something close to what they predicted,” Haswell said.