Astronomers using the Kepler space telescope have confirmed the discovery of a short-period super-Mercury planet that has entered the final stage of its life. The object has gotten so close to its parent star that it's only taking 15.7 hours to orbit around it, while it's surface temperature has risen to 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit. The result: a dramatic comet-like tail that's bursting outward from the planet — and with it, much of the planet's surface.
Space.com is reporting that this is the second team to take an interest in the planet — a team whose findings are soon to appear the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. The phenomenon was originally discovered by astronomers this past May, and it now appears that their results have been corroborated.
The planet, a Mercury-sized terrestrial object about 1,500 light years away, is literally getting ripped apart by its sun. The astronomers, a team led by K. Tran and Saul Rappaport, speculate that the trail of debris is made up of macroscopic particles that have reached escape velocity and are making a hasty exit from the planet's surface and atmosphere. These particles could be anything from micron-sized pyroxene or aluminum oxide dust grains.
And according to the astronomers, the planet's surface is an apocalyptic mess. It has what's called a high-Z atmosphere, one that's loaded with dust — and it's leaving the surface in a hurry, the result of cloud condensation and explosive volcanism. These gasses and particulate are escaping the planet via a Parker-typer thermal wind that's dragging dust grains along with it. The amount of force that's being exerted against this end-stage planet must be nothing short of astounding.
Given the rate of evaporation, the astronomers predict that the entire planet will be gone in about 200 million years.
It's also worth noting that this effect can only really happen to planets that are about the size of Mercury. Any larger and the gravitational forces will be too strong to sustain outflows like this one. That said, it has also been documented that hot-Jupiters can also have their atmospheres blown in to space.