WASHINGTON — The Hubble space telescope has discovered a planet in our galaxy in the process of being devoured by the star that it orbits, according to a paper published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The doomed planet, dubbed WASP-12b, has the highest known surface temperature of any planet in the Milky Way — around 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,800 degrees Fahrenheit).
But it could be enveloped by its own parent star over the next ten million years, the paper’s authors have concluded.
Using a new instrument called the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph that was installed on Hubble in 2009, the researchers observed how the planet was whipped into an elongated shape by gravitational forces.
“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,” team leader Carole Haswell of The Open University in Great Britain said.
Discovered in 2008, WASP-12b is located about 600 light-years from Earth in the Auriga Constellation and is more than 300 times the size of Earth.
It also has a mass 40-percent greater than that of Jupiter, the biggest planet in our solar system.
It is so close to its parent star that it orbits it in little more than 24 hours.
Astronomers already knew that stars will swallow a planet that comes too close to it, but this is the first time that the phenomenon has been observed so clearly.
The paper, which was published in the May 10 edition of The Astrophysical Journal Letters, confirms a theoretical paper published in the journal Nature last Friday by Shu-lin Li, an astronomer at Peking University in Beijing.
Shu-lin had predicted that the planet’s surface would be distorted by the star’s gravitational pull, and that gravitational tidal forces would make the interior so hot that it would greatly expand its outer atmosphere.