With the imminent release of the latest installment in the “Star Wars” saga, scientists are having difficulties not comparing the destruction of a planet by a rogue white dwarf to a real-life “Death Star”
Thank you Kepler telescope
For the first time in history, astronomers and other scientists are “watching” the destruction of a solar system by its own sun by analyzing data provided by the Kepler telescope. It’s not a terrifically different fate than the one are own planet will be resigned to once the sun consumes its nuclear fuel and becomes a white dwarf. Now, this fate is billions upon billions of years from now and nobody will be on Earth to worry about it. Firstly, without nuclear fuel the Earth’s sun will be unable to support life. Second, is anyone reading this really naive enough to think the Earth will be inhabitable for humans in 10,000 years?
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Presently, scientists are watching a large rocky body about the size of the largest of the minor planets within the orbit of Neptune in a death spiral about 520,000 from the white dwarf.
“This is something no human has seen before,” said Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), lead author of a paper depicting the death of a planet. “We’re watching a solar system get destroyed.”
The discovery of the “death star”
Scientists are witnessing the phenomenon of a planet transiting the white dwarf based on information obtained by NASA’s Kepler K2 mission and further observation by ground-based telescopes at the Whipple Observatory. The ground-based telescopes are showing a primary transit every 4.5 hours but that transit is being accompanied by additional rocky bits that show definitively that the planet is coming apart “at the seams.”
The core material of a white dwarf is primarily comprised of oxygen and carbon within a sheath of hydrogen/helium though heavier elements like iron and silicon are sometimes present.
“It’s like panning for gold – the heavy stuff sinks to the bottom. These metals should sink into the white dwarf’s interior where we can’t see them,” said co-author John Johnson.
What scientists are now near certain of is that this presence of heavy metals is essentially “pollution” caused by the white dwarf star’s destructive nature.
“We now have a ‘smoking gun’ linking white dwarf pollution to the destruction of rocky planets,” said Vanderburg.
Prior to becoming a white dwarf our sun will turn into a red giant that will first probably consume Mercury and Venus while threatening Earth. But at the end of the day, the Earth is destined to go the way of Alderaan at the hands of the Empire’s Death Star.