Will We Actually Watch Our Future Unfold?

New data from NASA’s Kepler K2 mission seems to suggest that there is evidence to support the claim that a distant white dwarf star is destroying the large, rocky body it orbits.

The Kepler K2 mission first noticed this small planet, which is around the size of Ceres, due to dips in the brightness of stars. This then lead to the discovery of this white dwarf star, orbiting 520, 000 miles away, as it passed in front of the planet.

White dwarfs are the remnants of dead stars. After a regular star uses up all its nuclear fuel, it turns into a red giant, expanding outward to 100 times its original size. Any planets that might have been orbiting closely around the star are engulfed by the giant and spiral down into the star’s core. Eventually, a red giant will start to contract and shed its outer layers, growing much smaller and more dense. The end result is a white dwarf — a compact leftover of the original star’s inner core.

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Image of white dwarf, Sirius B

Further observations were made by other ground based telescopes including Whipple Observatory, the MMT, MEarth-South and Keck and they believe they have complied enough information to suggest that indeed, the planet is being ripped apart.

Many have theorized in the past that the Earth will end in a similar way. When our Sun dies, it will become a Red Giant and then inevitably, a White Dwarf. Now scientists are suggesting if the Red Giant doesn’t manage to destroy us, then we are to suffer the same fate via the White Dwarf, tearing the planet to shreads leaving only a dust cloud in it’s wake. Now the theory may be confirmed.

“This is something no human has seen before,” said Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), lead author of a paper on the phenomenon. “We’re watching a solar system get destroyed.”

It is the first planetary object to be confirmed transiting a white dwarf, WD 1145+017. A dip in brightness every 4.5 hours, indicating the passing of a celestial body, shows the orbit of this planet, which is not in the typical U formation but rather asymmetric elongated slope pattern that would indicate the presence of a comet-like tail. It is in the constellation Virgo, 570 light years away from Earth.

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The real Death Star – an artist’s conception of a Ceres-like asteroid slowly disintegrating as it orbits a white dwarf star. (Credit: Mark A. Garlick)

Some astronomers suspected that planets would be effected by the loss of mass from a White Dwarf, causing them to collide with one another and ultimately be pulled apart by the dwarf’s gravity, but now it seems the theory is being confirmed right before our eyes.

If this is the case, then the shattered pieces of metallic elements in the dust pollution left behind would the fall back into the star, therefore replenishing it’s metals.

“Instead of being transited by a solid planet, the white dwarf was being transited by a planet that has a dusty, comet like tail trailing behind it,” Vanderburg said. That tail, rather than just an isolated object orbiting, would make the starlight change unevenly over time. There are likely several fragments making the journey and entering astronomers’ view, Vanderburg said. For the first time, researchers were seeing the 10-year-old theory about how white dwarf systems evolve directly confirmed in the night sky.

By finding white-dwarf transits in Kepler data, researchers will get the closest look yet at such exoplanets. We cannot understand exoplanets, unless we understand how they got formed, how they evolve dynamically and how they die.

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Rocky material in orbit around a white dwarf star

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