4.8 Article

An infrared transient from a star engulfing a planet

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NATURE
Volume 617, Issue 7959, Pages 55-+

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NATURE PORTFOLIO
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-05842-x

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We observed a short-lived optical outburst accompanied by bright and long-lived infrared emission from a celestial body, which showed similarities with red novae. Through our research, we concluded that this eruption was caused by the engulfment of a planet of fewer than roughly ten Jupiter masses by a Sun-like star. The rate of such subluminous red novae in the Milky Way is estimated to be roughly between 0.1 and several per year.
Planets with short orbital periods (roughly under 10 days) are common around stars like the Sun(1,2). Stars expand as they evolve and thus we expect their close planetary companions to be engulfed, possibly powering luminous mass ejections from the host star(3-5). However, this phase has never been directly observed. Here we report observations of ZTF SLRN-2020, a short-lived optical outburst in the Galactic disk accompanied by bright and long-lived infrared emission. The resulting light curve and spectra share striking similarities with those of red novae(6,7)-a class of eruptions now confirmed(8) to arise from mergers of binary stars. Its exceptionally low optical luminosity (approximately 10(35) erg s(-1)) and radiated energy (approximately 6.5 x 10(41) erg) point to the engulfment of a planet of fewer than roughly ten Jupiter masses by its Sun-like host star. We estimate the Galactic rate of such subluminous red novae to be roughly between 0.1 and several per year. Future Galactic plane surveys should routinely identify these, showing the demographics of planetary engulfment and the ultimate fate of planets in the inner Solar System.

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