What is an Exoplanet?

Exoplanets are planets located outside of the solar system, orbiting stars other than our own sun. This definition expands beyond what astronomers traditionally view as a “planet” to include dwarf planets, asteroids and comets, among other objects. The search for these distant worlds has been ongoing for decades and has dramatically increased in scope and success as technology advances.

The Discovery of an Exoplanet Being Tore to Shreds by its Star

In April 2019, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope caught a distant exoplanet known as J1407b (also referred to as J1407b or “Jupiter-size exoplanet”) being torn apart by its host star. The star is located about 330 light-years away from Earth, making this a rare event to observe.

J1407b’s Unusual Features

J1407b was found to be an unusually large planet, estimated to be 2- 15 times the size of Jupiter, depending on its composition. Part of the reason why this planet was able to be observed being destroyed is because its host star, J1407, is a young star that is still forming. This process is thought to be responsible for destabilizing the gravitational balance of J1407b and ultimately leading to its destruction.

The Observable Effects of J1407b’s Destruction

By observing J1407b, astronomers have been able to “see” the effects of the planet’s destruction. Its host star is surrounded by hundreds of concentric disk-like rings, the innermost of which has a diameter estimated to be 1,500 times the size of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. The arrangement of the outer rings are much like Saturn’s rings, only much larger, spanning 250 billion miles. These rings are thought to be the debris from the shattered planet, formed by the gravitational pull of J1407.

Shedding Light on Stellar Formation

This event has provided powerful insight into how stellar systems evolve and form. The space dust that these rings are composed of was likely released from the planet as it fragmented and were pushed outwards by radiation and winds from the host star. This is thought to be one of the ways in which planets are formed; the subsequent clumping of matter to form the planet forms from accretion disks much like the one in J1407b’s system.

Understanding Planet-Star Interactions

The violent destruction of J1407b also sheds light on planet-star interactions more generally. Astronomers now have an unprecedented view of the stages of such interactions and the resulting effects. This event could help explain similar phenomena like comets, which could be formed by the same type of gravitational fragmentation.

Implications for Future Exoplanet Discovery

The discovery of J1407b’s destruction has far-reaching implications for the study of exoplanets. By understanding the features and behavior of planets during their formation and destruction, scientists can develop better approaches to detecting and identifying these distant worlds. This knowledge can be utilized to understand the attributes of newly-discovered exoplanets, such as their size, composition, and even the regions of space where such planets could be observed.

The destruction of J1407b provides powerful insight into stellar formation, planet-star interactions, and the processes of forming and identifying distant exoplanets. With the aid of powerful observational instruments, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers now have a clearer view of the life cycles of distant worlds. By understanding the events leading up to and the effects of these exoplanet destructions, scientists can improve our ability to observe and study even the most distant regions of space.