Tiny Planet May Be Doomed

Saturday, 26 May 2012 05:17 PM

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The Universe’s latest planetary candidate is only slightly larger than the planet Mercury, and researchers estimate that because of its tight orbit around its sun, it could completely disintegrate within 100 million years, according to a Space.com report.

“This might be another way in which planets are eventually doomed,” said Dan Fabrycky, a member of the Kepler Observatory science team. “A lot of research has come to the conclusion that planets are not eternal objects, they can die extraordinary deaths, and this might be a case where the planet might evaporate entirely in the future.”

Astronomers at NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology detected the tiny planet, which is located about 1,500 light-years away, using data from the planet-hunting Kepler mission.

Trailing a cloud of dust and debris something like a comet’s tail, the tiny planet speeds around its host star once every 15 hours, suggesting that the star, named KIC 12557548, heats the planet to temperatures of about 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We think this dust is made up of submicron-sized particles,” study leader Saul Rappaport, a professor emeritus of physics at MIT, says. “It would be like looking through Los Angeles smog.”

Using data from NASA's Kepler mission, the researchers found the planet candidate after identifying an unusual light pattern coming from the KIC 12557548 star.

“The bizarre nature of the light output from this star with its precisely periodic transit-like features and highly variable depths exemplifies how Kepler is expanding the frontiers of science in unprecedented ways,” said Jon Jenkins, Kepler co-investigator at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, Calif. “This discovery pulls back the curtain of how science works in the face of surprising data.”

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