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Newfound Exoplanet May Turn to Dust: Planet’s Dust Cloud May Explain Strange Patterns of Light from Its Star |

Researchers at MIT, NASA and elsewhere have detected a possible planet, some 1,500 light years away, that appears to be evaporating under the blistering heat of its parent star. The scientists infer that a long tail of debris — much like the tail of a comet — is following the planet, and that this tail may tell the story of the planet’s disintegration. According to the team’s calculations, the tiny exoplanet, not much larger than Mercury, 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.

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

The group’s findings, published 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. The observatory records the brightness of each star at regular intervals; scientists then analyze the data for signs of new planets outside our own solar system. continue reading

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