Disintegrating Exoplanet with a Surface That's Being Vaporized May Reveal How Our Solar System Formed

First Posted: Feb 19, 2015 08:12 AM EST

A certain rocky exoplanet could tell researchers how our solar system was formed. Scientists have made some new observations of a small rocky world that may increase our understanding of how planets were first created.

In order to better examine the exoplanet, which is located about 1,500 light-years from Earth, the scientists used the new ULTRACAM on the William Herschel Telescope. Named KIC 1255 b, the exoplanet has a fast orbit; one of its years lasts just 16 hours. Because of its proximity to its host star, the planet has a surface that's heated over 1,800 degrees Celsius, which is hot enough to vaporize rock. As a result, the planet's outer layers are continuously destroyed and the evaporating rock causes a comet-like dust tail to stream out from the planet.

Once every orbit, the planet and its dusty tail passes across the host star. This blocks some of its light from our view. The planet itself is about the size of Mercury, which is far too small to be seen on its own; however, its dust cloud is much bigger and makes observations possible.

The ULTRACAM measurements revealed that the dust cloud, when visible, blocks a slightly larger fraction of the star's blue light than red light. A similar effect is seen at sunset on Earth when the sun's light is scattered by dust in the Earth's atmosphere, making the remaining light appear reddened. The exact color-dependence of the scattering by dust can reveal the size and composition of the dust grains. Ultimately, a series of measurements of the dust cloud could reveal the chemical composition of the dust.

Since the dust itself is made from the rocky surface of the disintegrating planet, the same technique allows for the chemical makeup of the planet's surface to be measured.

"This is an incredibly exciting breakthrough as it opens the possibility of determining the chemical composition of this rocky planet," said Jaku Bochinski, one of the researchers, in a news release. "By doing that we can find out how typical our solar system is, helping us learn more about how Earth and other planets are formed."

Researchers haven't yet examined the exact chemical makeup of the planet. However, the future observations they make will tell them a lot about this rocky world. They plan to make further observations in the summer of 2015, which should tell them quite a bit about this exoplanet.

The findings are published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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