Astronomers have seen the first evidence of a dying sun-like star engulfing an exoplanet in what could be a preview of Earth’s ultimate fate.
The cataclysmic event, some 13,000 light years away, was observed using the Gemini South telescope in Chile.
Such spectacles occur when stars similar to our sun near the end of their life.
Dying stars expand to upwards of 1,000 times their normal size and transform into a so-called “red giant”.
Eventually, they engulf their solar system’s inner planets.
This happens a few times a year across the Milky Way but had never been seen happening live until now.
Writing in the journal Nature, astronomers revealed how imaging technology on Gemini South and archival infrared data from a NASA space telescope was used to identify the event, dubbed ZTF SLRN-2020.
The star is estimated to have been between 0.8 and 1.5 times the mass of our sun, while the engulfed exoplanet – which is the name given to planets outside our solar system – was one to 10 times the mass of Jupiter.
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The outburst of elements and material from the engulfment lasted approximately 100 days.
Study co-author Ryan Lau said: “That’s more star and planet-forming material being recycled, or burped out, into the interstellar medium thanks to the star eating the planet.”
It is likely that our sun will eventually end up devouring the Earth in the same way, along with Mercury and Venus – though thankfully not for about five billion years.
Mr Lau added: “After the billions of years that span the lifetime of our solar system, our own end stages will likely conclude in a final flash that lasts only a few months.”
Now that astronomers have seen one of these planetary engulfments happening in real time, they hope to have more success finding them elsewhere in the cosmos.
Their work will be helped by the under-construction Vera C Rubin Observatory, also in Chile, which will conduct an unprecedented decade-long survey of the sky when it comes online in 2025.