The Death Star of the movie Star Wars may be fictional, but planetary destruction is real. Astronomers announced today that they have spotted a large, rocky object disintegrating in its death spiral around a distant white dwarf star. The discovery also confirms a long-standing theory behind the source of white dwarf "pollution" by metals.
"We now have a 'smoking gun' linking white dwarf pollution to the destruction of rocky planets," says Vanderburg.
Questions remain about the origin of these rocky objects. The most likely scenario is that an existing planet's orbit became unstable and it was kicked inward.
What is certain is that the remaining objects will not last forever. They are being vaporized by the intense heat of the white dwarf. They also are orbiting very close to the tidal radius, or distance at which gravitational tides from the white dwarf can rip apart a rocky body. Within the next million years or so, all that will remain of these asteroidal bits is a thin metal dusting on top of an innocent-looking white dwarf star.
This discovery will be published in the Oct. 22, 2015, issue of the journal Nature.
Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.
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