Understanding how planets evolve is a crucial part of understanding our very own solar system, and what types of planets may exist elsewhere in the cosmos.
According to astronomers, both the speed and distance at which exoplanets orbit their host stats may help determine the exoplanet’s fate, whether it will remain a longstanding world in a distant alien solar system, or whether it will evaporate into the cosmic dark graveyard faster than expected.
In order to understand more about distant aliens worlds that lay beyond our solar system, astronomers have come across a planet (with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope) roughly the size of Neptune, dubbed GJ 3470b.
They have found that this mysterious exoplanet is vanishing at a record speed.
According to a study published int he journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, the mysterious alien world is evaporating at a rate 100 times faster than a previously discovered exoplanet of similar size called GJ 436b.
“This is the smoking gun that planets can lose a significant fraction of their entire mass. GJ 3470b is losing more of its mass than any other planet we have seen so far; in only a few billion years from now, half of the planet may be gone,” explained David Sing, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of the study.
The study, part of the Panchromatic Comparative Exoplanet Treasury (PanCET) program, aims to measure the atmosphere of at least 20 distant exoplanets in ultraviolet, optical and infrared light, as they orbit their stars.
Astronomers want to understand how distant worlds lose their mass through evaporation.
Super Earth and ‘Hot’ Jupiter’s orbit closer to their stars and are therefore much warmer. This fact causes the outermost layer of their atmosphere to be blown away through evaporation.
Astronomers explain that while the cosmos is relatively rich in Jupiter-sized and smaller Earth-sized exoplanets, medium, Neptune-sized exoplanets are scarce in the cosmos.
It is thought that the atmosphere of such planets is stripped away so violently, that the ultimately become smaller worlds.
But since they can only be studied in UV light, this phenomenon is really difficult to witness.
This sole fact limits researchers to examining stars located no more than 150 light-years away from our solar system, which are not obscured by interstellar material.
GJ 3470b the exoplanet in question, is located around 96 light-years away and circles a red dwarf star.
In the recently published scientific paper, the Hubble Space Telescope had discovered that GJ 3470b had lost significantly more mass than a much smaller world previously studied, GJ 436b.
Astronomers estimate that GJ 3470b may have already lost up to 35 percent of its total mass. In a few billion years, astronomers say that the only thing left will be a barren, rocky core.
“We’re starting to better understand how planets are shaped and what properties influence their overall makeup,” Sing explained.
“Our goal with this study and the overarching PanCET program is to take a broad look at these planets’ atmospheres to determine how each planet is affected by its own environment. By comparing different planets, we can start piecing together the larger picture in how they evolve.”