HONOLULU (KHON2) — For over two years, scientists have been working to unravel a case of what they call “cosmic cannibalism,” and on Wednesday, June 15, the team presented their results.
A dead star, called a white dwarf, is basically ripping up its planetary system by siphoning off debris from both the system’s inner and outer reaches. Astronomers said this is the first time they have observed a white dwarf star consume both rocky-metallic and icy material, the ingredients of planets.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on Wednesday reported that archival data from their Hubble Space Telescope and other NASA observatories — including the Keck Observatory’s High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) in Hawaii — were essential in diagnosing this case.
Scientists analyzed material captured by the atmosphere of the nearby white dwarf star G238-44. NASA called the findings intriguing — the results will help describe the violent nature of evolved planetary systems, as well as inform astronomers about the makeup of newly forming systems.
“We have never seen both of these kinds of objects accreting onto a white dwarf at the same time,” Ted Johnson, the lead researcher, announced on Wednesday. “By studying these white dwarfs, we hope to gain a better understanding of planetary systems that are still intact.”
According to NASA, the estimated total mass eventually gobbled up by the white dwarf in this case may be no more than the mass of an asteroid or small moon. The white dwarf cannibalism gives scientists an opportunity to take planets apart and see what they were made of when they first formed around the star.
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