The Hubble Space Telescope has discovered evidence of a white dwarf star devouring rocky and icy material from its own system, suggesting that water and other volatiles may be common in the outer parts of planetary systems.
Astronomers used archive data from The Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories to analyze the spectral properties of white dwarf star G238-44. The elements discovered on the star’s surface show that the dead star absorbs debris from the system’s inner and outer range.
“We have never seen both of these types of objects gather on a white dwarf at the same time,” said Ted Johnson, a lead researcher and a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, in a statement. “By studying these white dwarfs, we hope to gain a better understanding of planetary systems that remain intact.”
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The observation of this cosmic dance of death provides a unique opportunity to see what planets were made of when they first formed around the star and confirm ideas about the violent and chaotic final stages of similar systems.
G238-44 is a former sun-like star that has ejected its outer layers and stopped burning fuel through nuclear fusion. The discovery that the constellation simultaneously captures material from its asteroid belt and Kuiper belts-like areas, including icy bodies, are important because they suggest that a “water reservoir” may be a common feature of the outer parts of planetary systems.
“Life as we know it requires a rocky planet covered with a number of elements, such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen,” said Benjamin Zuckerman, professor emeritus at the UCLA Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and co-author of the research. “The abundance of elements we see on this white dwarf seems to require both a rocky and a volatile rich parent body – the first example we have found among studies of hundreds of white dwarfs.”
The research group included astronomers at UCLA; University of California, San Diego; and Kiel University in Germany. The team’s results were presented June 15 at a press conference from the American Astronomical Society.
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