Five billion years from now, after our sun exhausts its nuclear fuel and starts to expand into a red giant, it will swallow our planet whole on its way to becoming a white dwarf. This process has been a long-accepted model of a solar system’s life cycle but has never actually been confirmed by observation. Now astronomers believe they have caught a red giant in the act of eating one of its planets, giving us a unique insight into the fate of planet Earth for the first time.
According to BBC News, a multi-national team made the discovery while observing the red giant BD+48 740 with the Hobby Eberly telescope in Texas. To catch a star in the act of eating its own planets is no small feat, as the process happens relatively quickly in cosmic terms, but the team managed to infer it from a couple of tell-tale signs. Spectroscopic analysis of the star’s composition revealed that it had an extraordinarily high amount of Lithium, a suspiciously rare element in the universe that is the subject of its own ongoing scientific investigations. Stars tend to destroy Lithium pretty easily, so having a lot of it in a red giant sent up flags immediately. According to one of the team’s members, Alexander Wolszczan of Penn State: