A distant extrasolar planet that astronomers discovered this May was confirmed to be disintegrating, in its tight orbit around its parent star. The study that first revealed the exoplanet's existence proposed such an explanation for what astronomers were seeing, but nothing was proven until now.
The world revolves around the distant star KIC 12557548, which is located around 1,500 light-years away from Earth. The exoplanet lies so close to its companion that it completes a full orbit in roughly 15 hours, Space reports.
By comparison, Mercury – the closest planet to the Sun in our solar system – completes an orbit in around 88 days. Such a short distance between KIC 12557548 and its planetary companion spells nothing but trouble for the latter.
For starters, astronomers estimate that average surface temperatures on the exoplanet are somewhere around 1,982 degrees Celsius (3,600 degrees Fahrenheit), which is enough to melt most metals.
But close proximity to a star also involves massive tidal and gravitational interactions, which deform the smaller object (the planet, in this case), making its shape more elongated, and producing immense tidal waves all over the place.
Short orbital distances also lead to tidal locking, a phenomenon that is also visible in the Earth-Moon system. Tidal forces are so strong that the smaller body is prevented from spinning around its own axis. Therefore, it always shows the same face towards the object it's tidally-locked to.
In the new study, astronomers used data from several observatories to establish that a massive cloud of dust was trailing behind the exoplanet in its orbit. This is strong proof to support the idea that the alien world is slowly ripped apart by its parent star, its debris scattered throughout its orbit.
Details of the new study, which used the original Kepler data that led to the discovery of the planet, will appear in an upcoming issue of the esteemed journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.
“By observing the dust clouds in different colors, something Kepler cannot do, we will be able to determine the amount and the composition of the dust and estimate its lifetime,” Leiden University astronomer and study coauthor Christoph Keller says.
“As the evaporation peels the planet like an onion, we can now see what used to be the inside of a planet,” he concludes.