The Hubble Space Telescope has detected 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 regions of planetary systems.
The astronomers used archival data from Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories to analyze the spectral properties of white dwarf star G238-44. Elements detected on the star’s surface show that the dead star is pulling debris from the inner and outer extensions of its system.
Ted Johnson, principal investigator and recent alumnus of the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a statement statement. “By studying these white dwarfs, we hope to gain a better understanding of the still intact planetary systems.”
Observing this cosmic dance of death provides a unique opportunity to see the planets that formed when they first formed around a star and to confirm ideas about the violent and chaotic final stages of similar systems.
G238-44 is a former sun-like star that shed its outer layers and halted fuel burning through nuclear fusion. The discovery that the stellar corpse simultaneously picks up material from the asteroid belt and kuiper beltZone-like regions, including icy bodies, are important because they suggest that a “water reservoir” may be a common feature in the outer extensions of planetary systems.
“Life as we know it requires a rocky planet covered with a variety of elements, such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen,” said Benjamin Zuckerman, professor emeritus in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at UCLA and co-author of the paper. “The abundance of elements we see on this white dwarf appears to require a rocky, volatility-rich body — the first example we found among studies of hundreds of white dwarfs.”
The research group included astronomers at the University of California. University of California, San Diego; and Kiel University in Germany. The team’s findings were presented on June 15 at a press conference of the American Astronomical Society.