News Release

Flaring star could be down to young planet’s disc inferno

New simulations led by University of Leicester offer new explanation for star’s 85-year flare

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Leicester

Burst star

image: A simulation of the early stages of the process. A hot jupiter planet is pushed to its star too close and starts to evaporate, shedding its outer layers into the surrounding disc. The extra material makes the disc much hotter than before the burst. When the planet loses most of its mass, it is completely destroyed via the spagettification process well known from disruption of stars by supermassive blackholes. Planet demise ends the outburst. view more 

Credit: Credit: Sergei Nayakshin/Vardan Elbakyan, University of Leicester

The mystery of a stellar flare a trillion times more powerful than the largest of Solar flares may have been solved by a team of scientists who believe a massive young planet is burning up in a superheated soup of raw material swirling around it.

Led by the University of Leicester and funded by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the scientists have suggested that a planet roughly ten times larger in size than Jupiter is undergoing ‘extreme evaporation’ near to the growing star, with the inferno tearing material off the planet and flinging it onto the star.

They have published their findings in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Statistics of such flares in developing solar systems suggests that each could witness up to a dozen of similar planet elimination events.

The scientists focused their attention on the protostar FU Ori, located 1,200 light years from our solar system, which significantly increased in brightness 85 years ago and has still not dimmed to the usually expected luminosity.

While astronomers believe that the increase in FU Ori luminosity is due to more material falling onto the protostar from a cloud of gas and dust called a protoplanetary disc, details of that remained a mystery.

Lead author Professor Sergei Nayakshin from the University of Leicester School of Physics and Astronomy said: “These discs feed growing stars with more material but also nurture planets. Previous observations provided tantalizing hints of a young massive planet orbiting this star very close. Several ideas were put forward on how the planet may have encouraged such a flare, but the details did not work out. We discovered a new process which you might call a ‘disc inferno’ of young planets.”

The Leicester-led researchers created a simulation for FU Ori, modelling a gas giant planet formed far out in the disc by gravitational instability in which a massive disc fragments to make huge clumps more massive than our Jupiter but far less dense.

The simulation shows how such a planetary seed migrates inward towards its host star very rapidly, drawn by its gravitational pull. As it reaches the equivalent of a tenth of the distance between Earth and our own sun, the material around the star is so hot it effectively ignites the outer layers of the planet’s atmosphere. The planet then becomes a massive source of fresh material feeding the star and causing it to grow and shine brighter.

Study co-author Dr Vardan Elbakyan, also Leicester-based, adds: “This was the first star that that was observed to undergo this kind of flare. We now have a couple dozen examples of such flares from other young stars forming in our corner of the Galaxy. While FU Ori events are extreme compared to normal young stars, from the duration and observability of such events, observers concluded that most emerging solar systems flare up like this a dozen or so times while the protoplanetary disc is around.”

Professor Nayakshin adds: “If our model is correct, then it may have profound implications for our understanding of both star and planet formation. Protoplanetary discs are often called nurseries of planets. But we now find that these nurseries are not quiet places that early solar system researchers imagined them to be, they are instead tremendously violent and chaotic places where many – perhaps even most -- young planets get burned and literally eaten by their stars.

“It is now important to understand whether other flaring stars can indeed be explained with the same scenario.”

  • ‘Extreme evaporation of planets in hot thermally unstable protoplanetary discs: the case of FU Ori’ is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stad1392, Link:
  • This study received funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).


Notes to editors:


About the University of Leicester

The University of Leicester is led by discovery and innovation – an international centre for excellence renowned for research, teaching and broadening access to higher education. It is among the Top 30 universities in the Times Higher Education (THE)’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 rankings with 89% of research assessed as world-leading or internationally excellent, with wide-ranging impacts on society, health, culture, and the environment. The University is home to more than 20,000 students and approximately 4,000 staff.

About the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC):

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), funds and supports research in particle and nuclear physics, astronomy, gravitational research and astrophysics, and space science and also operates a network of five national laboratories as well as supporting UK research at a number of international research facilities including CERN, FERMILAB and the ESO telescopes in Chile. STFC is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise.  

About UK Research and Innovation (UKRI):

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is the UK’s largest public funder of research and innovation and is composed of seven disciplinary research councils, Innovate UK and Research England. Annually, we invest more than £8 billion to advance our understanding of people and the world around us and deliver benefits for society, the economy and the environment. Working in partnership, we aim to shape a more connected and agile research and innovation system in the UK that is an integral part of society, giving everyone the opportunity to participate and to benefit. Find out more in our new 5-year strategy, Transforming Tomorrow Together.

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