Exoplanet Turning To Dust Under Parent Star's Intense Heat, Scientists Say

Space scientists have found a little exoplanet with some big eccentricities.

The planet, detected about 1,500 light years from Earth, orbits its super-hot parent star once every 15 hours--one of the shortest planet orbits ever observed. What's more, the scorching heat to which the planet is subjected seems to be turning it into dust.

The scientists, including researchers from MIT, say the planet could disintegrate completely in 100 million years, according to a written statement released by the university.

The exoplanet, believed to be about the size of Mercury, sparked the scientists' interest when they noticed an unusual pattern of light coming from the parent star, named KIC 12557548. They thought the varying light might be evidence that a planetary duo (two planets orbiting each other) were orbiting the star, but data didn’t support that idea, researcher Saul Rappaport, a professor emeritus of physics at MIT, said in the statement.

Ultimately, the researchers inferred that the variable light pattern was caused by a cloud of dust trailing away from the planet as its star's intense heat causes it to evaporate.

“I’m not sure how we came to this epiphany,” Rappaport said. “But it had to be something that was fundamentally changing. It was not a solid body, but rather, dust coming off the planet.”

Data used in the study came from the Kepler Observatory, which surveys more than 160,000 stars in the Milky Way.

“This might be another way in which planets are eventually doomed,” Dan Fabrycky, a Kepler science team member who was not directly involved in this research, said in the statement. “A lot of research has come to the conclusion that planets are not eternal objects, they can die extraordinary deaths, and this might be a case where the planet might evaporate entirely in the future.”

The scientists published their findings May 18, 2012 in The Astrophysical Journal.