By Walt Bonner, ,
Published May 02, 2016
A rare planet has been discovered, and it doesn’t seem like a stop anyone would want to make on an intergalactic cruise. Found by two research teams independently of each other, Kepler-432b is extreme in its mass, density, and weather. Roughly the same size of Jupiter, the planet is also doomed- in 200 million years it will be consumed by its sun. “Kepler-432b is definitively a rarity among exoplanets around giant stars: it is a close-in gas-giant planet orbiting a star whose radius is 'quickly' increasing,” Davide Gandolfi, from the Landessternwarte Koenigstuhl (part of the Centre for Astronomy of the University of Heidelberg), told FoxNews.com. “The orbit of the planet has a radius of about 45 million kilometers [28 million miles] (as a reference point, the Earth-Sun distance is about 150 million kilometers [93.2 Million miles]), while most of the planets known to orbit giant stars have wider orbits. The stellar radius is already 3 million kilometers [almost 2 million miles] (i.e., about 4 times the Sun radius) and in less than 200 million years it will be large enough for the star to swallow up its planet.”
Gandolfi, a member of one of the research groups who discovered the rare planet, explains that much like Jupiter, Kepler-432b is a gas-giant celestial body composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, and is most likely to have a dense core that accounts for 6 percent or less of the planet’s mass. “The planet has a mass six times that of Jupiter, but is about the same size!” he says. “This means that it is not one of the largest planets yet discovered: it is one of the most massive!” The planet’s orbit brings it extremely close to its host star on some occasions, and very far away at others, which creates extreme seasonal changes. In its year - which lasts 52 Earth days - winters can get a little chilly and summers a bit balmy, to say the least. According to Gandolfi, “The highly eccentric orbit brings Kepler-432b at ‘only’ 24 million kilometers [15 million miles] from its host star, before taking it to about three times as far away. This creates large temperature excursions over the course of the planet year, which is of only 52 Earth days. During the winter season, the temperature on Kepler-432b drops down to 500 degrees Celsius [932 degrees Fahrenheit], whereas in summer it can goes up to nearly 1000 degrees Celsius [1832 degrees Fahrenheit].”
Then again, if you are crazy enough to visit Kepler-432b, you’d better do it fast. As stated before, its host star is set to swallow the planet whole in 200 million years, making the celestial body a rare find. “The paucity of close-in planets around giant stars is likely to be due to the fact that these planets have been already swallowed up by their host stars,” Gandolfi says. “Kepler-432b has been discovered ‘just in time before dinner!” The host star, which is red and possesses 1.35 times the mass of our sun, has partly exhausted the nuclear fuel in its core, and is slowly expanding, eventually growing large enough to swallow Kepler-432b. According to Gandolfi, this is a natural progression for all stars. “Stars first generate nuclear energy in their core via the fusion of Hydrogen into Helium,” he explained. “At this stage, their radii basically do not change much. This is because the outward thermal pressure produced by the nuclear fusion in the core is balanced by the inward pressure of gravitational collapse from the overlying layers. In other words, the nuclear power is the star pillar! Our Sun is currently ‘burning’ hydrogen in its core (please note that I used quotes: ‘burning’ does not mean a chemical reaction- we are talking about nuclear fusion reaction). However, this equilibrium between the two pressures does not last forever. Helium is heavier than hydrogen and tends to sink. The stellar core of the Kepler-432b's host star is currently depleted of hydrogen and it is mainly made of inert helium. The star generates thermal energy in a shell around the core through the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium. As a result of this, the star expands and cools down. This is why we call it ‘red giant’- the reddish color comes from the fact that the external layers of the atmosphere of the star are cooling down because they expand.”
Both research teams (the other was from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg) used Calar Alto Observatory’s 7.2- foot telescope in Andalucia, Spain. The planet was also studied by Landessternwarte Koenigstuhl researchers using the 8.5-foot Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma, which is located in Spain’s Canary Islands.