Did you think that Earth was the most interesting thing about our galaxy? You obviously don't have all the facts. In a turn of events that wouldn't be out of place in an ancient Greek myth, a star in the constellation Pisces is slowly devouring its own planetary "offspring." Hollywood, are you listening? This is a multimillion-dollar science fiction movie waiting to happen. Get Matt Damon on the phone.
The cannibalistic star in question is RZ Piscium, located about 550 light years from Earth in the Pisces constellation. Even before the revelation that it is destroying nearby planets, the star was notable for strange dimming episodes, which sometimes lasted for days. During that time, its light becomes up to 10 times fainter; afterward, it shines as brightly as usual. Needless to say, scientists were intrigued. According to NASA, when astronomers studied the star, they found evidence that it was surrounded by a "disk of warm dust" — lots of it.
"These and other observations led some astronomers to conclude that RZ Piscium is a young Sun-like star surrounded by a dense asteroid belt, where frequent collisions grind the rocks to dust," NASA's website explains.
But other scientists had a different theory. According to them, the star is older than our Sun, and all that dust came from planets that were pulled apart, piece by piece, when they got too close.
So what's the answer — is RZ Piscium a young, dusty star, or an old one with an appetite for planets? Apparently, the answer is somewhere in between. According to a new study published in The Astronomy Journal, RZ Piscium is young after all. When a team of U.S. astronomers looked at characteristics like surface temperature and lithium, they found that it's probably somewhere between 30 and 50 million years old. Believe it or not, for a star, that's relatively young. At this age, though, it should no longer be surrounded by so much dust and debris... unless it's pulling apart nearby planets.
RZ Piscium's solar system is relatively young — to put things in perspective, our own is 4.6 billion years old — and in systems of this age, it isn't uncommon for planets to migrate toward the star at the center. Unfortunately, their journeys are doomed. When they get too close to their sun, "disrupted planets" are torn apart by the star's tidal forces. That's what the U.S. researchers believe to be the cause of all the dust surrounding RZ Piscium: planets that were drawn in too close to survive its gravity. By the way, don't think too closely about how strong these forces must be to tear apart an entire planet, because that way lies tin hats and existential crises.
"Based on our observations, it seems either that we're seeing a fairly massive, gaseous planet being pulled apart by the star, or perhaps two gas-rich planets that have collided and been torn apart," said Catherine Pilachowski, according to Science Daily.
As NASA points out, this could explain why the star "winks" every once in a while. If RZ Piscium was surrounded by enormous amounts of dust and gases that came from destroyed planets, these clouds may block its light from Earth at certain parts in its orbit. Mystery solved.
Any amateur astrologer knows that Pisces, the sign of the Fish, is usually a calm, empathetic sign — not exactly the type to go around eating its fellows. If the actions of a certain star in the Pisces constellation are any indication, though, you might want to step lightly around them. Call me crazy, but I would prefer not to piss off a planet-eater.