Science News

White Dwarf Star Destroys Its Solar System

Astronomers have spotted a star that is tearing apart a planet that orbits it. This star isn’t too different from our sun when its at the end of its lifespan, and the discovery may be showing us what our future may be.

In the constellation Virgo around 570 light-years from us, is a star nearing the end of its life. It has already gone through its red giant phase, where it expanded 100-200 times its original size. It then collapsed into a white dwarf, which it now is. A white dwarf is a much smaller but incredibly dense star. The Wall Street Journal reports that one teaspoon of matter on a white dwarf has a mass of almost 15 tons.

This massive star is pulling apart a nearby orbiting planet. The intense heat of the star as well as the incredible gravity is causing the planet to lose about 22 million pounds of material every second.

Scientists used a combination of NASA’s Kepler space telescope as well as ground observations to make their discovery. They were able to see the planet as it crossed the path between its star and the Earth. The dimming of the light as the planet crossed was enough information for scientists to determine how big the planet is as well as how fast it is travelling.

Results were published recently in a report in the journal Nature. Graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and lead author, Andrew Vanderburg, stated that we are watching a solar system being destroyed and that the debris that is produced is blocking the starlight that is visible from Earth.

What we’re seeing are fragments of a disintegrating planet that is being vaporized by [the white dwarf’s] starlight and is losing mass. The vapor is getting lost into orbit, and that condenses into dust which then blocks the starlight.

As our own star nears its end of life, in about 5 billion years according to, the sun will swell into a red giant itself. At that point it will consume Mercury, Venus and perhaps Earth. Even if Earth does escape death then, it looks as though it probably won’t survive the sun’s white dwarf phase and will likely suffer the same fate as the little planet in the Virgo constellation.

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