In a rare cosmic sighting, a sun-like star destroyed its planetary system by dying, leaving behind a white dwarf star. The dead star now consumes both icy and metallic rocky materials that form planets. The discovery was made by analyzing archival data from NASA’s Hubble Telescope and other US space agency observatories. Called cosmic cannibalism, the observation has shed light on the violent nature of the evolved planetary system and can help astronomers understand the composition of newly formed systems.
Researchers have examined material captured by the atmosphere of a white dwarf star called G238-44. It was the remnant of a Sun-like star that was destroyed, stopped burning fuel by nuclear fusion, and shed its outer layers.
“We’ve never seen these two types of objects pile up on a white dwarf at the same time,” said lead researcher and University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) graduate Ted Johnson. Johnson added that studying the white dwarf can lead to a better understanding of existing planetary systems.
According to Benjamin Zuckerman, a UCLA professor and co-author of the study, the elements that are abundant on the white dwarf appear to require both a volatile-rich and rocky parent body. “The first example we found among studies of hundreds of white dwarfs,” he added.
When a planetary system dies, a star like ours typically expands into a puffy red giant and begins to lose mass, swelling its outer layers. Johnson explained that after this phase, there remains a white dwarf that is no larger than Earth. “Whimsical planets end up getting very close to the star and experiencing powerful tidal forces tearing them apart,” he added. This, in turn, forms a gaseous, dusty disk that lands on the surface of the white dwarf star.
Now, researchers aim to examine the white dwarf star and use the information to better understand planetary systems.
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