Astronomers have seen the first evidence of a dying sun-like star devouring an exoplanet, which could be a preview of Earth’s eventual fate.
The cataclysmic event was observed by the Gemini South telescope in Chile, some 13,000 light-years away.
This spectacle occurs when a star similar to our sun is nearing the end of its life.
Dying stars expand to more than 1,000 times their normal size and transform into so-called “red giants.”
Eventually, they engulfed the inner planets of the solar system.
This happens several times a year in the Milky Way, but has never been seen live until now.
In the journal Nature, astronomers reveal how imaging techniques from Gemini South and infrared archival data from NASA space telescopes were used to identify the event, known as ZTF SLRN-2020.
The star is estimated to be 0.8 to 1.5 times the mass of the sun, while the engulfed exoplanet — which is the name for the planets outside our solar system — is 1 to 10 times the mass of Jupiter.
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The burst of elements and matter during the engulfment lasted about 100 days.
“As the star eats the planet, more star and planet-forming material is recycled or released into the interstellar medium,” said study co-author Ryan Lau.
It’s likely that our sun will eventually devour Earth in the same way, along with Mercury and Venus — though thankfully not for about 5 billion years.
Mr Liu added: “After billions of years of the solar system’s life cycle, our own end will likely end in a final flash that lasts only a few months.”
Now that astronomers have seen one of these planetary engulfments happen in real time, they hope to find them more successfully elsewhere in the universe.
Their work will be aided by the construction of the Vera C Rubin Observatory, also in Chile, which will conduct an unprecedented decade-long survey of the sky when it comes online in 2025.