Astronomers have made an incredible discovery – an exoplanet the size of Jupiter that is being boiled alive by its host star, resulting in a enormous, comet-like tail over 350,000 miles in length trailing behind it. This epic tail provides remarkable insights into the violent nature of some star-planet systems across the cosmos.
Background on Exoplanet Discovery and Research
The study of planets outside our solar system, called exoplanets, has advanced tremendously in recent decades. Powerful telescopes like NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have enabled the detection of thousands of alien worlds, helping us better understand planet formation and evolution. Many bizarre exoplanets have already been found, including “hot Jupiters” – gas giants similar in size to our solar system’s biggest planet but orbiting extremely close to their stars. Friction from the star’s stellar winds can heat a planet’s atmosphere to blazingly high temperatures.
This recently detected exoplanet, called WASP-69b, orbits its host star every 3.3 days at a distance of only 5% that between Earth and the Sun, making it very susceptible to heating. The research team, led by astronomers at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA), made their observations using both space and ground-based telescopes.
“We were very surprised to see this long tail attached to a fairly ordinary looking hot Jupiter,” said lead author Avi Shporer. “It raises many questions about the properties of this planet and how it is affected by its extremely hot day-side temperatures contrasting with its cooler night side.”
Discovery of WASP-69b’s Enormous 350,000 Mile Tail
When analyzing data from NASA’s now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope, Shporer’s team noticed something astonishing – the exoplanet WASP-69b exhibited a colossal tail trailing behind it on its orbit. Additional observations confirmed the tail’s presence. At over 350,000 miles long, it’s the largest planetary tail ever observed.
“The tail is made up of material stripped from the planet’s atmosphere by incredibly fierce stellar winds,” explained Shporer. At such proximity to its star, temperatures climb above 1,832°F on the exoplanet’s day side. This heat boil materials in WASP-69b’s atmosphere, pushing hydrogen and oxygen gases out into space in a long tail reminiscent of a comet’s dust and ion tails.
“The tail contains enough mass to dwarf Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s largest moons,” said Shporer.
Insights Into Exoplanet-Star Interactions
This remarkable discovery provides a closer look at the powerful effects host stars can have on nearby exoplanets. WASP-69b orbits an aging star that will eventually swell up into a red giant phase, likely engulfing nearby planets.
“In a way, we’re witnessing the early stages of a planetary death spiral,” remarked astronomer Thomas Mikalac from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, a co-author on the study. “Fierce stellar winds are impacting the exoplanet’s atmosphere, shaping it into a surprisingly long comet-like tail.”
|0.26 Jupiter masses
|1 Jupiter mass
|1.06 Jupiter radii
|1 Jupiter radius
Table comparing properties of WASP-69b to Jupiter. WASP-69b is being boiled by its star, resulting in an enormous tail over 350,000 miles long.
The planetary evaporation happening to WASP-69b will one day be the fate of planets in our own solar system as the Sun grows into a red giant star some 5 billion years from now.
“Studying exoplanetary atmospheres like WASP-69b in detail allows us a glimpse into the past and future of our own solar system,” said Shporer. “We are observing the present-day evaporation processes that probably happened in Mars’ early life, when the Sun was more active. And we can get a preview of the fate of the inner planets as our Sun ages.”
Looking Ahead at Exoplanet Evolution
Astronomers suspect similarly large tails my lurk behind other known exoplanets, but they’re difficult to detect with current instruments. Powerful next-generation telescopes, like the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope and the future Ariel space mission, will enable more detailed studies.
“JWST’s precise measurements of atmospheric composition and structure could help confirm whether the tail is made up of planetary or stellar material. Meanwhile Ariel will allows us to explore a wider sample of hot Jupiters to see if such tails are commonly produced through planetary evaporation,” Shporer said.
There’s still much to uncover regarding the nature of exoplanet evaporation. The enormous tail trailing behind WASP-69b will enable new science and represents another leap forward on the path to unraveling the mysteries of distant alien worlds across the cosmos.
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