Real-Life "Death Star" Has the Power to Destroy an Entire Planet

Wednesday, 21 October 2015 - 5:15PM
Astrophysics
Astronomy
Wednesday, 21 October 2015 - 5:15PM
Real-Life "Death Star" Has the Power to Destroy an Entire Planet
The Death Star of the Star Wars universe is a ship equipped with a planet-destroying laser, but as it turns out, real stars can destroy Alderaan just as effectively (if much more slowly). A new Harvard University study, published in Nature, reports that a distant white dwarf star is disintegrating the planet in its orbit, and possibly others as well.

For the study, the researchers examined data from NASA's Kepler K2 mission, which detects exoplanets by measuring dips in stars' brightness caused by planets transiting across them and blocking their light. They found that a planet transits the star every 4.5 hours, marking the first time a planetary body has been discovered orbiting a white dwarf. It is approximately two lunar distances from the star, and has a cometary tail of dusty effluent material, which indicates that it's disintegrating. Although only one planet has been confirmed so far, the researchers predict that there are several more in the star's orbit.

Opening quote
"This is something no human has seen before," lead author Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) told Phys.org. "We're watching a solar system get destroyed."
Closing quote

This discovery is not only groundbreaking on its own, but confirms a longstanding but unproven theory about white dwarf "pollution." White dwarf stars are Sun-sized stars that have reached the end of their lives, but since their mass is not high enough to become a neutron star, it sheds its outer layers to become a planetary nebula, and the remaining core of carbon and oxygen becomes a dwarf star. Generally, no heavy metals are present at detectable levels, as they are expected to sink to the center, but a few have been found to be "polluted" with metals like silicon and iron.

Many astronomers have theorized that this "pollution" is the result of the white dwarf consuming and destroying rocky planets or asteroids, but there was never any concrete evidence. Now, this systems shows the presence of a rocky, disintegrating planet and a disk of debris surrounding the star, which essentially catches it red-handed.

Opening quote
"We now have a 'smoking gun' linking white dwarf pollution to the destruction of rocky planets," said Vanderburg.
Closing quote

It's not as cinematic as the destruction of Alderaan, but it's still fairly dramatic, as the surrounding planets are being slowly vaporized by this "Death Star." Questions still remain as to the origin of these planetary bodies, but researchers are certain that within a million years or so, there will be nothing left of these planets but a thin layer of dust surrounding the white dwarf.
Science
Space
Astrophysics
Astronomy

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