In what is being understood as “cosmic cannibalism,” a dead star is tearing apart its planetary system. This is the first time astronomers have observed such a phenomenon. Considered as G238-44, it is a white dwarf star. Astronomers came to know about this with the help of archival data from the Hubble Space Telescope and other NASA observatories. In a NASA blog, lead researcher and recent University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) graduate Ted Johnson said, “We’ve never seen these two 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.”
To simplify, in this case, the tidal forces of the white dwarf are causing the planets to disintegrate. The findings are considered intriguing because small icy objects are credited with crashing into our solar system and “irrigating” the dry, rocky planets. Such comets and asteroids are believed to have brought water to Earth billions of years ago. In the same NASA blog, UCLA professor and co-author Benjamin Zuckerman explained, “Life as we know it requires a rocky planet covered with various elements, such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. This white dwarf is what we see.” The abundance of the giving elements requires both a rocky and a volatile-rich parent—the first example we’ve found in a study of hundreds of white dwarfs.
Such stars become red giants before becoming white dwarfs. A consequence of this may be “the gravitational scattering of smaller objects such as asteroids, comets and moons by any remaining large planets”. Like pinball in arcade games, living objects can be thrown into highly eccentric orbits.
Researchers are looking at the final scenario of the Sun’s evolution. This is when Earth’s inner planets are expected to completely vaporize as well. However, the orbits of many asteroids in the main asteroid belt will be gravitationally affected by Jupiter. Then, they would eventually fall on the white dwarf that the rest of the Sun would become.
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