A star is ending its life so violently that the dead star, called a white dwarf, is disrupting the entire planetary system by sucking debris from both its inner and outer reaches. Astronomers have observed this cosmic phenomenon for the first time. The white dwarf star is consuming rock-metal and icy material, both of which are “planetary constituents”.
This case of cosmic cannibalism was diagnosed with the help of archival data from the Hubble Space Telescope and other NASA observatories. The researchers derived the findings based on an analysis of material captured by the atmosphere of the nearby white dwarf star G238-44. A white dwarf forms when a low-mass star like our Sun has exhausted most of its nuclear fuel. It is usually very dense and is about the size of a planet.
“We haven’t seen both of these types of objects accumulating on a white dwarf at the same time. By studying these white dwarfs, we hope to gain a better understanding of the planetary systems that are still intact,” Ted Johnson, lead researcher and graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), said in a press statement.
These research findings are also interesting because it is these icy objects that are credited with crashing and “irrigating” the dry rocky planets in the Solar System. Such comets and asteroids are thought to have delivered water to Earth billions of years ago, providing the conditions necessary for life as we know it.
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Johnson said the makeup of bodies attracted by white dwarfs means that such icy reservoirs may be common among planetary systems.
“Life as we know it requires a rocky planet covered with various elements such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. The abundance of elements we see on this white dwarf requires both a rocky and an unstable-rich mother- Both fathers are required – the first example we found in a study of hundreds of white dwarfs,” said Benjamin Zuckerman, a UCLA professor and co-author, in the press statement.
Current planetary system evolution theories describe the transition of a red giant star into a white dwarf as a chaotic process. These stars quickly lose their outer layers and the orbits of their planets change dramatically. Small objects like asteroids and dwarf planets may eventually get too close and fall towards the star.
This new study confirms the nature of this violent and chaotic phase and shows that within 100 million years after the start of their white dwarf phase, stars are able to hold together and consume material from regions such as our asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt. are capable. But the estimated total mass consumed by the white dwarf in this research cannot exceed the mass of an asteroid or small moon.
The cannibalism of this white dwarf presents a unique opportunity to allow scientists to see what they were made of when they first formed around the star. The research team measured the presence of nitrogen, oxygen, magnesium, silicon, iron and other elements.
Researchers are looking at the final scenario of the Sun’s evolution, some 5 billion years from now. Earth may have completely vaporized along with the other inner planets. But the orbits of many asteroids in the main asteroid belt will be gravitationally affected by Jupiter and will eventually fall into the Sun.