Researchers have detected a possible Mercury-sized planet, some 1,500 light years away, that appears to be being evaporated by its parent star, KIC 12557548. The scientists from MIT and NASA infer that a long tail of debris is following the planet, and that this tail may tell the story of the planet's disintegration. The scientists calculate that the planet will completely disintegrate within 100 million years.
The team found that the dusty planet circles its parent star every 15 hours - one of the shortest planet orbits ever observed. Such a short orbit must be very tight and implies that the planet must be heated by its orange-hot parent star to a temperature of about 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Researchers hypothesize that rocky material at the surface of the planet melts and evaporates at such high temperatures, forming a wind that carries both gas and dust into space. Dense clouds of the dust trail the planet as it speeds around its star.
Saul Rappaport, a professor emeritus of physics at MIT and co-author of the study, says, "We think this dust is made up of submicron-sized particles. It would be like looking through a Los Angeles smog."
The group's findings, published here
in the Astrophysical Journal
, are based on data from the Kepler Observatory, a space-based telescope that surveys more than 160,000 stars in the Milky Way. Take a look: