"We see a huge cloud of material around the planet which is escaping and will be captured by the star. We have identified chemical elements never before seen on planets outside our own solar system," says team leader Carole Haswell of The Open University in the U.K.
Although this is the first example of an exoplanet dying in such a way, the event was predicted by a theoretical paper that appeared in the journal Nature in 2009. Shu-lin Li of the Department of Astronomy at the Peking University, Beijing, showed that a tightly orbiting exoplanet would distort under the pressure the star's gravity, while the extreme tidal forces would cause internal heating, making the exoplanet expand.
This exoplanet was first revealed by the U.K.'s Wide Area Search for Planets (WASP) in 2008. By looking for the slight dimming of stars, transiting exoplanets can be discovered, blocking a fraction of starlight reaching Earth.
Using Hubble to zoom in on WASP-12b as it transited the star revealed elements such as aluminum, tin and manganese. Once the exoplanet had completed its transit, passing behind the star, these elements could still be seen, but in smaller quantities. This was a sure sign that the material that was once on the exoplanet was spilling into the star's outer layers.