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What a Way to Go!

The idea that gravity might pull a planet into its parent star has been predicted by computer models, but now astronomers have found evidence that this has actually happened.

Astronomer Rory Barnes says, "When we look at the observed properties of extrasolar planets, we can see that this has already happened. Some extrasolar planets have already fallen into their stars." How does he know this? Computer models show where planets should line up in a particular star system, but direct observations show that some systems are missing planets close to the stars where models say they should be.

WHY does it happen? This usually happens to planets that are close to their parent stars. Such planets can be detected relatively easily by changes in brightness as their orbits pass in front of the stars. But because they are so close to each other, the planet and star begin pulling on each other with increasingly strong gravitational force, misshaping the star's surface with rising tides from its gaseous surface.

Astronomer Brian Jackson says, "Tides distort the shape of a star. The bigger the tidal distortion, the more quickly the tide will pull the planet in."

The destruction is slow but inevitable. "The orbits of these tidally evolving planets change very slowly, over timescales of tens of millions of years," Jackson says. "Eventually the planet's orbit brings it close enough to the star that the star's gravity begins tearing the planet apart. So either the planet will be torn apart before it ever reaches the surface of the star, or in the process of being torn apart its orbit eventually will intersect the star's atmosphere and the heat from the star will obliterate the planet."

If these planets contained life, we have to wonder what happened to everyone. Could this be what the Mayans were warning us about?

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