Few people would like to know the time and nature of their disappearance, but for planet Earth, its fate is sealed. In five billion years it will probably be swallowed up by our own Sun and devoured by a stellar hell.
Now, for the first time, astronomers have seen what it might look like because another planet in the Milky Way has been seen being swallowed by its own star.
Experts from Harvard, Caltech and MIT were studying a star 12,000 light-years away that was entering its red giant phase at the end of its life and increasing in size.
When the star expanded in an attempt to extend its lifespan because it was running out of fuel, it began pulling an orbiting planet towards it before engulfing it.
Over a period of ten days the scientists watched the star become 100 times brighter than usual and the analysis showed similarities to when two stars merge.
However, the brightness of this event was only one-thousandth the strength of a merger of two stars, leading the team to conclude from various computer models that the star had engulfed a large planet, roughly the size of Jupiter.
After ten days of exceptional brightness, the star cooled and astronomers watched the brightness fade over the next six months. Our Sun, whose heat and gravity allowed life to thrive, will one day do the same to us, but Earth’s fiery fall will occur in about five billion years.
‘We are seeing the future of the Earth,’ said the study’s lead author, Dr Kishalay De of MIT, of the findings. “If some other civilization were watching us from 10,000 light-years away as the Sun was engulfing the Earth, they would see the sun suddenly brighten as it ejects material, then form dust around it, before returning to what it was.”
100x brightness peak
He adds that he was looking at data from the Palomar Observatory in California when he saw the 100-fold brightness peak that was, he says, “unlike any stellar explosion I’ve seen in my life.”
A year later he studied the same event with infrared data, not visible light. “That infrared data knocked me off my chair,” she says. “The source was incredibly bright in the near infrared.”
Dr. De’s scientific discoveries are a major step forward in understanding planetary dynamics, but they are a harbinger of doom for Mercury, Venus and possibly Earth as well.
“I think there’s something really remarkable about these findings that speaks to the transience of our existence,” said Ryan Lau, study co-author from NOIRLab.
“After the billions of years that span the life of our Solar System, our final stages will likely conclude in a final flash lasting only a few months.”
The study is published in the journal Nature and UCLA astronomer Dr. Smadar Noaz said in an accompanying article that “gravitational interactions between a star and a planet in close orbit around it can also slowly bring the planet to its disappearance”.
“When a star runs out of its core of hydrogen, it expands and becomes a sub-giant. At this stage, it will begin to engulf its neighboring planets: in a few billion years, the Sun will undergo this process.”
Dr. Noaz added that more observations of the planet-engulfing star seen in this study are needed to understand more about similar events and find out what drives them to occur.