1 in 12 stars may have devoured a planet

Stability of Planetary Systems

How stable can a planetary system be? Will Earth and its seven siblings continue forever on their stable celestial orbits, or will there come a day when we are randomly evicted from our cosmic home?

Physicists understand the rules governing the orbits of two celestial bodies, but once a third body (let alone a fourth, fifth, or a hundredth) is added, the dynamics become much more complex. Unpredictable instabilities emerge, where one object might be randomly flung into space or plunged into its host star.


For centuries, scientists have been troubled by the so-called “three-body problem.” One obstacle to understanding it is our limited knowledge of how common such catastrophic instabilities are.

In a recent study published in the journal Nature, a research team shed light on this issue. Through a survey of nearby stars, they found that as many as one in twelve stars may have devoured a planet, possibly because this planet disturbed its orbit and fell into the star.

Studying Twins

Their research revealed that in their sample, at least 8% of star pairs displayed chemical anomalies, indicating that one star had engulfed material from a planet that once orbited it.

To detect these subtle signals, researchers had to eliminate other possible explanations for these chemical patterns. Therefore, they focused on “binary stars,” known to have formed from the same material mix at the same time.

This approach helped eliminate confounding factors, similar to how twin studies are sometimes used in sociology or medical research.

This finding stems from a twin star survey called “C3PO,” initiated by one of the authors, Associate Professor Yuan Senting of the Australian National University’s Astrophysics Department, in the United States. Later, researchers like Liu Fan from Monash University’s School of Physics and Astronomy joined this study.

Their team collected detailed spectroscopic data samples from 91 pairs of binary stars—significantly larger than similar studies conducted in the past.

They found that some stars differed from their twins, exhibiting a unique chemical pattern with higher levels of elements like iron, nickel, and titanium compared to others, such as carbon and oxygen. These differences convincingly proved that the star had swallowed a planet.

Unpredictability Might Be Surprisingly Common

When a primary star engulfs one or more members of a planetary system, it indicates that some instability has occurred within the system’s dynamics.

Simulations suggest that such instability may be quite common in the early life of planetary systems—around the initial billion years. However, traces of planets early engulfed in stars from billions of years ago, as observed by us, remain undetectable.

This indicates that the observed chemical anomalies result from recent instabilities leading stars to consume some planets or planetary material.

This discovery wasn’t entirely unexpected. Theoretical planetary dynamicists, including their co-author Bertram Bitsch, have noted that many planetary systems are unstable, particularly those with planets termed “super-Earths,” slightly larger than Earth but much smaller than gas giants like Jupiter.

Systems containing planets like super-Earths may be particularly unstable. Gravitational tug-of-wars between the primary star and its massive planets could give rise to instability.

Delicate Balance

This new research encourages scientists to reconsider our position in the cosmos. While we take the stability of our solar system for granted, it may not be the norm throughout the universe.

This study does not suggest that we might witness such instabilities in our solar system. Nonetheless, even with the new findings, it’s important to recognize that planetary engulfment and instability still occur in a minority of cases.

Researchers hope their study will inspire more exploration of planetary systems and their relationships with host stars. In fact, our understanding of multi-body system dynamics remains incomplete.

As we continue to uncover the mysteries of the universe, studies like this remind us of the delicate balance crucial for life on Earth and the potential fragility of our cosmic home.

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