Poor Planet WASP-12b


National Geographic News: “Star ‘Eating’ Superhot Planet’s AtmospherePity poor planet WASP-12b: its host star not only heats it to more than 4,700˚F (2600˚C), but also is in the process of eating it.

This raises the temperature of the planet’s surface to more than 4,700˚F.

We first reported on WASP-12b in October 2008, when astronomers reported that the huge planet (six times larger than Jupiter) is so close to its host star, it orbits it every 26 hours. And because of the planet’s strange orbit, the star’s gravity acting on the planet generates a phenomenon called tidal heating. Together, this raises the temperature of the planet’s surface to more than 4,700˚F (2600˚C).

Furthermore, a team of astronomers now reports that the heat is puffing up WASP-12b’s atmosphere so much that some of it escapes. The astronomers suggest this escaping gas may be pulled toward the star, resulting in a hot ring around the star—giving the impression of the star eating the planet. The team estimates the ring would be even hotter than the planet, ranging up to 7,232˚F (4000˚C).

Team member Jonathan Fortney, an astronomer at the University of California–Santa Cruz, explained, “We have not seen any evidence of this, but we’re suggesting that observers should look for this disk.”

Although scientists will now have to look for evidence of the disk to support the team’s hypothesis, we may have learned another fascinating fact in this exoplanetary vignette. Amazing are not only the extremes of WASP-12b (as with so many regions of space), but also how that planet reminds us of the special habitability of Earth.

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