May 14, 2023

Astronomers just saw a star eat a planet—an astrophysicist on the team explains the first-of-its-kind discovery

Posted by in categories: computing, space

For the first time, astronomers have captured images that show a star consuming one of its planets. The star, named ZTF SLRN-2020, is located in the Milky Way galaxy, in the constellation Aquila. As the star swallowed its planet, the star brightened to 100 times its normal level, allowing the 26-person team of astronomers I worked with to detect this event as it happened.

I am a theoretical astrophysicist, and I developed the computer models that our team uses to interpret the data we collect from telescopes. Although we only see the effects on the star, not the planet directly, our team is confident that the event we witnessed was a star swallowing its planet. Witnessing such an event for the first time has confirmed the long-standing assumption that stars swallow their and has illuminated how this fascinating process plays out.

The team I work with searches for the bursts of light and gas that occur when two stars merge into a bigger, single star. To do this, we have been using data from the Zwicky Transient Facility, a telescope located on Palomar Mountain in Southern California. It takes nightly images of broad swaths of the sky, and astronomers can then compare these images to find stars that change in brightness over time, or what are called astronomical transients.

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