Cronus Rising: This Blinking Star May Keep Eating its Planets

Weird Science
Image Credit: NASA
Friday, 22 December 2017 - 10:25AM

One of the best things about exploring the universe is that there's always more stuff to learn, and weird anomalies that don't seem to fit comfortably with our understanding of the laws of physics.

One such star, RZ Piscium, is garnering attention for odd behavior that suggests it might be devouring its planetary babies, like a nervous hamster crossed with Galactus from Fantastic Four comics.

RZ Piscium exists approximately 550 light years away from us, meaning that we don't always have a perfect view of what's going on within its solar system. One thing is certain, though - for some reason, the star keeps dimming significantly, losing 90% of its light for days at a time, in a repeating, if somewhat unpredictable, cycle.

So what's going on here? It's unlikely that the star would periodically lose its shine, so instead, what we're seeing is probably the result of large clouds of dust and debris from exploded planets that block RZ Piscium's light from reaching us here on Earth.

The easiest assumption would be that the star is getting old and entering its final stage of life, as similar patterns of behavior have been seen with ancient stars as they explode into supernovae, vaporizing anything in their orbit as a final act of aggression. Alternatively, the star system could be very young, and therefore unstable, with clouds of dust covering RZ Piscium from our view.

Neither of these explanations seem to be the case with RZ Piscium, as, according to levels of lithium that have been detected, the star is neither relatively young, nor particularly old. Lithium levels drop in stars over time, and as such, it's easy to date RZ Piscium as a fairly middle-aged star; one which ought to be settling down with its family of planets, rather than exploding them over and over in violent outbursts.

According to Ben Zuckerman of the University of California:

"The fact that RZ Piscium hosts so much gas and dust after tens of millions of years means it's probably destroying, rather than building, planets."

That said, other scientists theorize that RZ Piscium might be a victim of circumstances, not destroying worlds, but rather, enduring an orbit that is filled with the debris from a collision. Kristina M. Punzi of the Rochester Institute of Technology has suggested that:

"The destruction of planets could be caused by collisions of planets in a planetary system and/or a planet wandering too close to the star that it orbits-perhaps due to a collision with another body in the system. In this case the material of the planet can get stripped off by the gravity of the central star, hence feeding the central star and causing this massive X-ray output."

Whatever's going on with RZ Piscium, it's unlikely that we'll get solid answers any time soon. Our telescopes are, at present, not powerful enough to give us a better look at the star system in order to determine what's causing the massive waves of dust and debris that exist in the solar body's orbit.

At least there's no rush to figure out what's going on - considering that the star has millions and millions of years of life left in it, it's safe to assume that the RZ Piscium mystery isn't going anywhere, any time soon.