About 800 light years away, a massive exoplanet is having a hard time keeping itself together. And we mean that literally — K2-22b has been crumbling into pieces since before astronomers first discovered the Neptune-sized rocky planet back in 2015.
Scientists have since periodically tracked K2-22b’s decay to learn more about how and why some planets disintegrate as they orbit. Research recently published in The Astronomical Journal tracks the evolution of the planet’s transit around its star — one “year” on K2-22b is currently just nine hours — as it falls apart.
Of the roughly 3,800 exoplanets confirmed to exist, K2-22b is one of just three that have begun to disintegrate.
Because planetary disintegration is such a rare occurrence, the astronomers watching K2-22b are hoping to learn as much as they can about how and why it’s happening before the distant planet reaches its inevitable end.
Because they’ve found so few disintegrating exoplanets, astronomers are largely limited to observing what’s happening as they see it. This time, they found not only a comet-like trail of matter falling off the planet, but a trail of dust-like material in front of it as well.
But the scientists want to be able to learn more, and the research concludes that learning as much as they can through continuous observation of K2-22b would be a valuable endeavor — who knows when they’ll get another chance to watch a planet crumble apart.
READ MORE: The Disintegrating Exoplanet K2-22b [Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Newsroom]
More on exoplanets: Scientists Just Discovered the Second-Closest Exoplanet to Earth