Star eats planet. Next week, “Naked Vicar in sex romp with lesbian cat”, I promise.

Posted: August 22, 2012 in Popular Culture et al
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star eats planet

Nom nom nom …


Wellthisiswhatithink admits to be something of a science geek, on the quiet.

By which I mean, Dear Reader, that all fields of science fascinate me, and yet I personally have absolutely no aptitude for it. I failed Physics and Chemistry at school with the lowest possible score.The score they give you for successfully writing your name on the top of the paper.

Somehow, the teaching I got just failed to stick. There must be more to physics than dropping weights on springs off a benchtop, right? Not in my school. And Chemistry consisted of a guy with a speech impediment hurling insults at me incoherently because I couldn’t remember which H went with which C and which N and then turned by magic, apparently, into ZYX14 or some other shit. “That’s a tricky one, Sir, give me a moment?” was enough to cause an instantaneous stream of invective to pour down on me along the lines of “You stupid boy, why on earth do we both educating you? You are a burden on the taxpayer that should be wiped away forthwith. How come you can’t remember things like Cholmondley Minor does, eh? ” etc etc

That was because Cholmondley Minor was a freakishly intelligent guy who would go on to get top-notch distinctions in every single subject and then enjoy a considerable career as a successful rock star, of course. And sadly, “I can’t remember things properly because you are an obnoxiously sadistic and utterly crap teacher with the empathy of a small brick, Sir” wasn’t an acceptable response in an English public school, so I just stuck my head down and failed.

Yet somehow I scraped a pass in Biology – Lord knows how, I hated sticking a scalpel into cow’s eyes. The school I attended was in the middle of a working farm. So every day I walked to school past a field of cows, cheerfully munching kale. (Which made their milk taste sour, by the way.) Then into a dusty old classroom to be met with benches with brown blobs of gooey eye arranged in each boy’s place, just waiting to spurt all over one’s perfectly creased grey serge trousers. I could never convince myself that the eye in front of me hadn’t been smiling placidly at me just yesterday as I wandered by dragging my satchel on the ground. Obscene.

Which is why my Biology teacher was stunned when he saw I had bamboozled a pass. And when it turned out I had passed Maths, too, that teacher asked me, quite seriously, if I had discovered a way to bribe the Oxford and Cambridge Board of Examinations. Oh ye of little faith – you know who you are.

But my complete inability to remember a chemical formula or to understand how a gas expands never dimmed my enthusiasm for science, and cosmology in particular. So you will understand, my faithful crew, how this story wound its way up to being repeated in here.

Astronomers have found evidence for a planet being devoured by its star, yielding insights into the fate that will befall Earth in billions of years.

The team uncovered the signature of a planet that had been “eaten” by looking at the chemistry of the host star.

They also think a surviving planet around this star may have been kicked into its unusual orbit by the destruction of a neighbouring world.

Details of the work have been published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The US-Polish-Spanish team made the discovery when they were studying the star BD+48 740 – which is one of a stellar class known as red giants. Their observations were made with the Hobby Eberly telescope, based at the McDonald Observatory in Texas.

Planet designated WASP-12b getting devoured by its sun. Although this is artwork, it is based on the observations of the telescope, showing how the planet has been pulled into a rugby ball shape by the sun. Luckily, it’s got a few million years to go before it gets gobbled up altogether. Time to leave, peeps. Credit: NASA/ESA/G. Bacon

Rising temperatures near the cores of red giants cause these elderly stars to expand in size, a process which will cause any nearby planets to be destroyed.

“A similar fate may await the inner planets in our solar system, when the Sun becomes a red giant and expands all the way out to Earth’s orbit some five billion years from now,” said co-author Prof Alexander Wolszczan from Pennsylvania State University in the US.

Lithium boost

The first piece of evidence for the missing planet comes from the star’s peculiar chemical composition.

Spectroscopic analysis of BD+48 740 revealed that it contained an abnormally high amount of lithium, a rare element created primarily during the Big Bang 14 billion years ago.

Lithium is easily destroyed in stars, so its high abundance in this ageing star is very unusual.

“Theorists have identified only a few, very specific circumstances, other than the Big Bang, under which lithium can be created in stars,” Prof Wolszczan explained.

“In the case of BD+48 740, it is probable that the lithium production was triggered by a mass the size of a planet that spiralled into the star and heated it up while the star was digesting it.”

The second piece of evidence discovered by the astronomers is the highly elliptical orbit of a newly discovered planet around the red giant star. The previously undetected world is at least 1.6 times as massive as Jupiter.

Dome of the 9.2 m Hobby-Eberly Telescope. It h...

Dome of the 9.2 m Hobby-Eberly Telescope. It houses one of the largest optical telescopes in the world. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Co-author Andrzej Niedzielski of Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland, said that orbits as eccentric as this one are uncommon in planetary systems around evolved stars.

“In fact, the BD+48 740 planet’s orbit is the most elliptical one detected so far,” he added.

Because gravitational interactions between planets are often responsible for such peculiar orbits, the astronomers suspect that the dive of the missing planet toward its host star before it became a giant could have given the surviving massive planet a burst of energy.

This boost would have propelled it into its present unusual orbit.

Team member Eva Villaver of the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain commented: “Catching a planet in the act of being devoured by a star is an almost improbable feat to accomplish because of the comparative swiftness of the process, but the occurrence of such a collision can be deduced from the way it affects the stellar chemistry.

“The highly elongated orbit of the massive planet we discovered around this lithium-polluted red giant star is exactly the kind of evidence that would point to the star’s recent destruction of its now-missing planet.”

With thanks to Yahoo and others

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  1. mlshatto says:

    This is absolutely fascinating. How sad that your experience in chemistry and physics was so negative. All the sciences can be enthralling or deadly, depending on the skill of the instructor. I’m glad you found astronomy and are willing to share its delights with your readers.

    A rather tangential observation: I read that Professor Alexander Wolszczan teaches at Pennsylvania State University and thought Huh? Does he mean Penn State? So I checked their website, and sure enough, at the very bottom, in rather small type, it says “The Pennsylvania State University.” Please trust me on this ~ nobody in Pennsylvania refers to the school as anything other than Penn State. (Yes, that Penn State ~ the one with the on-going sexual abuse scandal.) Calling it Pennsylvania State University (which I note is the case in some on-line articles, so I’m not blaming you for it at all) is rather like calling our former president James Carter. It’s formal, and technically correct, and lots of people around here wouldn’t even know what you are talking about.

    Now about that unclad church official and the same-sex-oriented feline ……


  2. Wendy G says:

    An absolute miracle that your love for science survived your schooling. I was never much of a one for school anyway – our experiences sound frighteningly similar (though I attempted humanity subjects and couldn’t make much sense of them either). Sigh.


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