The Hubble Space Telescope has uncovered evidence of a white dwarf star gorging on rocky and icy material from its own system, suggesting that water and other volatiles may be common in the outer reaches of planetary systems.
Astronomers used archival data from the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories for analyzing the spectral properties of the White Dwarf Star G238-44. Elements discovered on the star’s surface show that the dead star is sucking debris from the interior and exterior of its system.
“We’ve never seen these two types of objects grow simultaneously on a white dwarf,” said Ted Johnson, the lead researcher and recent graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a expression. “By studying these white dwarfs, we hope to gain a better understanding of planetary systems that are still intact.”
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Observing this cosmic dance of death offers a unique opportunity to see what planets were made of when they first formed around the star and to confirm ideas about the violent and chaotic final stages of similar systems.
G238-44 is a former Sun-like star that has shed its outer layers and stopped burning fuel through nuclear fusion. The discovery that Sterncorpse is simultaneously capturing material from its asteroid belt and Kuiper belt-like regions, including icy bodies, is significant as it suggests that a “water reservoir” may be a common feature in the outer reaches of planetary systems.
“Life as we know it requires a rocky planet covered in a variety of elements such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen,” said Benjamin Zuckerman, professor emeritus in UCLA’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and co-author of the research. “The abundance of elements we see on this white dwarf appears to require both a rocky and ephemeral parent body — the first example we’ve found among studies of hundreds of white dwarfs.”
The research group included astronomers from UCLA; the University of California, San Diego; and the University of Kiel in Germany. The team’s findings were presented at a press conference held by the American Astronomical Society on June 15.
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