NASA Scientists May Have Witnessed A Star Feasting On A Planet For The First Time

Thursday, 19 July 2018 - 11:33AM
Science News
Astronomy
Thursday, 19 July 2018 - 11:33AM
NASA Scientists May Have Witnessed A Star Feasting On A Planet For The First Time
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Image Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
Hello, space police? We'd like to report a crime scene. While studying Chandra X-Ray Observation data, NASA reports that a group of scientists may have found evidence of a young star devouring one or more planets for the first time ever, and have published their findings in an article in The Astronomical Journal. Astronomers have long been curious about changes in the star's (RW Aur A) brightness, especially recently as it began dimming more frequently. The team believes that there was a collision of two objects (at least one of which was large enough to be a planet) near RW Aur A, and now the star is chowing down on the debris.



"Computer simulations have long predicted that planets can fall into a young star, but we have never before observed that," said study lead Hans Moritz Guenther, a research scientist at MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. "If our interpretation of the data is correct, this would be the first time that we directly observe a young star devouring a planet or planets." RW Aur A is about 450 light years away from Earth in the Taurus-Auriga Dark Clouds, a region that has thousands of infant stars. Some of them, including RW Aur A, are still surrounded by discs of dust and gas. As debris falls into the star, more gas and dust are created. Researchers now believe that previously observed dimming events were caused by similar collisions that caused a cloud of dust to temporarily block some of the light emitted.

According to the data, the star dimmed every few decades for about a month, but then in 2011 that month turned into six months. Then around 2014 it was like a dimmer switch was installed and someone was turning it every year. With Chandra, Guenther and his team were able to determine the density of the absorbing materials around RW Aur A and found that iron levels in the disc increased tenfold during the 2013 dimming period. More observations are necessary to determine the size of the smashed objects that are feeding iron to the star.

"Much effort currently goes into learning about exoplanets and how they form," said Guenther, "so it is obviously very important to see how young planets could be destroyed in interactions with their host stars and other young planets, and what factors determine if they survive."

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