Dead Star Caught Violently Tearing Up Planetary System: ‘Cosmic cannibalism’

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A star’s death throes have so violently disrupted its planetary system that the dead star left behind, called a white dwarf, is siphoning off debris from both the system’s inner and outer reaches. This is the first time astronomers have observed a white dwarf star that is consuming both rocky-metallic and icy material, the ingredients of planets. Archival data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and other NASA observatories were essential in diagnosing this case of cosmic cannibalism. The findings help describe the violent nature of evolved planetary systems and can tell astronomers about the makeup of newly forming systems.

The findings are based on analyzing material captured by the atmosphere of the nearby white dwarf star G238-44. A white dwarf is what remains of a star like our Sun after it sheds its outer layers and stops burning fuel through nuclear fusion. “We have never seen both of these kinds of objects accreting onto a white dwarf at the same time,” said Ted Johnson, the lead researcher and recent University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) bachelor’s graduate. “By studying these white dwarfs, we hope to gain a better understanding of planetary systems that are still intact.” These research findings are also interesting because it is such icy objects are credited for crashing into dry rocky planets in the solar system and “irrigating them”. Such comets and asteroids are believed to have delivered water to Earth billions of years ago, thereby sparking the conditions necessary for life as we know it.

Death of a Planetary System

When a star like our Sun expands into a bloated red giant late in its life, it will shed mass by puffing off its outer layers. One consequence of this can be the gravitational scattering of small objects like asteroids, comets, and moons by any remaining large planets. Like pinballs in an arcade game, the surviving objects can be thrown into highly eccentric orbits. “After the red giant phase, the white dwarf star that remains is compact – no larger than Earth. The wayward planets end up getting very close to the star and experience powerful tidal forces that tear them apart, creating a gaseous and dusty disk that eventually falls onto the white dwarf’s surface,” Johnson explained.

For over two years, the research group at UCLA, the University of California, San Diego, and the Kiel University in Germany, has worked to unravel this mystery by analyzing the elements detected on the white dwarf star cataloged as G238-44. Their analysis includes data from NASA’s retired Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE), the Keck Observatory’s High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) in Hawaii, and the Hubble Space Telescope’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) and Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS).

The researchers are now looking at the ultimate scenario for the Sun’s evolution, about 5 billion years from now. The Earth might get completely vaporised with the other inner planets. But the orbits of many asteroids in the main asteroid belt will be gravitationally perturbed by Jupiter and will eventually fall into the sun.

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