Discovery alert: for the first time, scientists have noticed that a planet is being eaten by its own white dwarf star

10/02/2022
Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick - Artist’s impression of a white dwarf, G29—38, accreting planetary material from a circumstellar debris disk. When the planetary material hits the white dwarf surface, a plasma is formed and cools via detectable X-ray emission
Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick - Artist’s impression of a white dwarf, G29—38, accreting planetary material from a circumstellar debris disk. When the planetary material hits the white dwarf surface, a plasma is formed and cools via detectable X-ray emission

The new year has just begun, and discoveries are in full swing. Recently, scientists have observed how a planet is simply eaten by its own white dwarf star. This is the first such discovery, without scientists ever noticing this strange phenomenon (until now). We shouldn't be too surprised. So far, they have also discovered stars that "ate" each other and other celestial objects that were destroying each other. But the discovery is fabulous and is another step in the discovery of space. 

This discovery was made with the help of X-rays to observe the remnants of a dead planetary system, where celestial bodies were devoured by the orbiting star. A few billion years after the star's creation, it died, like any other star after a certain age. After the star died, everything left, including rocks and gases, formed a white dwarf (most stars at the end of their life turn into white dwarfs). 

This is the first time that researchers have directly measured the rocky material as it falls on a white dwarf. In addition, they support and confirm decades of indirect evidence of the same effect, which has been seen at more than a thousand stars. 

Even, this is a new discovery, scientists believe that of the approx. 300,000 dead stars in our galaxy are many that "eat" the planets orbiting around them. Astronomers have had indirect evidence of this behavior, measuring the wavelengths of light to deduce that the material consumed has characteristics similar to those of the planets. But they have never noticed this behavior directly (until now). 

"We have finally seen material actually entering the star's atmosphere. It is the first time we've been able to derive an accretion rate that doesn't depend on detailed models of the white dwarf atmosphere. What's quite remarkable is that it agrees extremely well with what's been done before," said Tim Cunningham of the University of Warwick Department of Physics.

"Previously, measurements of accretion rates have used spectroscopy and have been dependent on white dwarf models. These are numerical models that calculate how quickly an element sinks out of the atmosphere into the star, and that tells you how much is falling into the atmosphere as an accretion rate. You can then work backwards and work out how much of an element was in the parent body, whether a planet, moon or asteroid."

The discovery was not possible without the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Thanks to this observer, the researchers were able to observe the new phenomenon. 

Why couldn't it be without such an observer? 

A star, after a while, consumes its energy, so it dies and turns into a white dwarf. Then the material left on the planets falls, colliding with it. On impact (when they collide) it creates a shock-heated plasma that settles to the surface and sends X-rays as it cools. The emitted X-rays are difficult to see in the night sky, due to other much stronger light sources. However, the Chandra X-ray Observatory is equipped with a technology to isolate the signals from the white dwarf, so it could observe X-rays. 

"A white dwarf that accumulates planetary material from X-ray observations," is was published in Nature.

Article by: Andacs Robert Eugen, on 10 February 2022, at 03:45 am Los Angeles time

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