Each planet beyond the solar system carries with it a distinctive feature, or a mysterious color, or an unfounded phenomenon. However, WASP-12b is a famous exoplanet not for what is created on its surface, but rather for what is being destroyed. That’s right- due to its sheer proximity to its parent star (about 2 million miles of distance), this planet is gradually being eaten away due to its superheated temperatures! It was discovered in 2008 by UK’s Wide Area Search for Planets, also known as SuperWASP, and is a “Hot Jupiter”- an extrasolar planet whose properties resemble that of Jupiter, but is significantly hotter in surface temperature.
WASP-12b is known to be the hottest planet in the Milky Way Galaxy, which revolves around its star at distances so close that there is no precedent within human awareness- it completes one full revolution in a mere 1.1 days! So, one day on this celestial body is one year on earth. The temperature of this planet’s surface is an overwhelming, crushing 2,200 degrees Celsius, or 4000 degrees Fahrenheit, and its body is being flattened and elongated into an egg shape by the nearby star’s powerful tidal forces. Its tidal forces, also known as “spaghettification” forces, results in the horizontal compression of the celestial body due to extremely strong gravitational fields. The atmosphere of WASP-12b has stretched considerably, and is “spilling material onto the star”- at around 189 quadrillion tons of matter a year, or 6 billion metric tons per second! Even the earth experiences such forces that cause the rise and fall of tides, but that withstood by WASP-12b is so gargantuan that its configuration gets completely distorted. Furthermore, this scorching exoplanet is not only being disfigured- it is also growing rapidly; the tidal strength causes a lot of friction and subsequently heat in this planet’s interior, thereby ballooning it to six times the volume of Jupiter.
According to observations made by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, due to these extreme, unfavorable circumstances, this ill-fated planet has only approximately 10 million years until it is swallowed in entirety by its parent, sun-like star- WASP-12. It is been calculated, in contrast, that the amount of time left on the Earth’s habitable zone is 7.79 billion years. WASP-12, a fiery, flaming orb, is a yellow dwarf star 800 light years away from the earth, and is located in the constellation Auriga (a pattern of stars discovered in the 2nd century by Ptolemy). In addition, it has been speculated by Shu-lin Li, an astronomer at Peking University in Beijing, that the atmospheric gas of WASP-12b is being expelled so far that it is being attracted and pulled right into the gravitational field of the parent star. They have also proposed that “rather than being blown away by stellar winds, the lost atmosphere might be getting pulled toward the star to form a hot ring around the star”. The materials that constitute this ringlet gradually spiral inward, until they are completely consumed by the parent body.
WASP-12b is a carbon rich planet, hence leading astronomers to believe that its interiors are composed of valuable matter, like graphite and diamond (for this reason, this planet has even been called The Planet of Diamond and Death). In fact, it has been said that “diamond could be as common on WASP-12b as limestone is on Earth”. Due to this extremely high concentration of carbon in the planet’s ambience, there is poisonous carbon monoxide and methane present in huge quantities. As said by Nikku Madhusudhan, a Princeton astrophysicist, “the high carbon-to-oxygen ratio indicates a carbide or diamond interior rather than the silicate geology of the Earth”. Although recent studies are suggesting that WASP-12b may not be the planet of glamor and jewels, this billowing object is still a source of popular discussion and conjecture, due to the unusual conditions that reign upon its surface. Moreover, what makes this planet such a miracle in the eyes of experts is the fact that “this is the first time that astronomers are witnessing the ongoing disruption and death march of a planet”, in the words of UC Santa Cruz professor Douglas N.C. Lin. Close inspection of this fascinating, doomed heavenly body can improve our knowledge of Hot Jupiters and the overall universe by leaps and bounds, simply because WASP-12b presents humanity with such an interesting situation- of a planet that is being devoured by its parent star, rather than being given life by the dazzling sphere.
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