A real life 'Death Star' is destroying planets in its own solar system

  • 9 years ago
CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS — A dying star is ripping apart planets in its own solar system, according to a team of astronomers who published a paper yesterday in the journal Nature.

The star, called WD 1145+017, is a white dwarf in the constellation Virgo. The finding was made by Andrew Vanderburg, a graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in March. The white dwarf was spotted by NASA's Kepler space telescope as part of the spacecraft's K2 mission, the Boston Globe reported.

Vanderburg saw a regular dip in brightness of the white dwarf every four-and-a-half hours. This suggested an object was orbiting the white dwarf at a distance of about 840,000 kilometres, about twice the distance between Earth and the Moon. After analysing data from the ground-based telescopes, Vanderburg concluded that the signal was caused by the disintegration process of the planet by the white dwarf's gravitational pull, ABC Australia reported.

"We've caught a star in the act of destroying a planet in its own system," Vanderburg told the Boston Globe. "It's like the smoking gun."

After a regular star uses up its nuclear fuel, it expands and turns into a red giant. Red giants are hot enough to convert helium into carbon. However, when its helium fuel has been exhausted, a red giant starts to contract and become more compact, eventually turning into a white dwarf, a leftover of the star's inner core.

A white dwarf is extremely dense, and its gravitational pull is so enormous that it can tear an orbiting planet apart. Astronomers believe that when a planet orbits closer than the habitable zone, it can be disintegrated by the gravitational pull of a white dwarf.


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