Star spotted eating its own planet

Astronomers have used the Hubble space telescope to spot a cannibal star in the act of eating a planet skimming around it. The doomed world – the hottest known in our galaxy – has been stretched into the shape of a rugby football and is spilling matter into its parent sun.

Cannibal star
Artist's impression of WASP-12b. (NASA, ESA)

Astronomers reckon the planet, dubbed WASP-12b, has only ten million or so years left before it is completely devoured – a mere blip in time on the cosmic scale.

The violent scenes were witnessed by a team led by UK scientist Carole Haswell, of the Open University at Milton Keynes, using a new instrument called the the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph that was installed on Hubble by visiting astronauts last year.

She said: “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.”

WASP-12b, which is 40 per cent bigger than Jupiter, is so close to its parent star that it is superheated to nearly 2,800 F 1,537 C) and stretched by enormous tidal forces.

Its atmosphere has ballooned to nearly three times Jupiter’s radius and is spilling material onto the star, a yellow dwarf which lies 600 light-years away in the constellation of Auriga the Charioteer.

The planet was discovered in 2008 during a search for new worlds by UK astronomers using two banks of eight cameras in the Canary Islands and South Africa. The SuperWASP project – short for Super Wide Angle Search for Planets – monitors millions of stars a night to detect tiny dips in starlight as planets pass in front of them.

Last month, the SuperWASP team revealed they had found planets orbiting the wrong way around their stars. The latest discovery is revealed in the latest issue of science publication The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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