Friday 2 December 2016

Death Star pulverising planet in far-off solar system

Published 21/10/2015 | 18:06

Artist impression of a planetoid disintegrating as it is destroyed by a white dwarf
Artist impression of a planetoid disintegrating as it is destroyed by a white dwarf

A real-life Death Star is pulverising a planet in a system far, far away.

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Astronomers have discovered a large rocky object disintegrating as it spirals towards a distant white dwarf star and is ripped apart by gravity.

Lead scientist Andrew Vanderburg, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in the US, said: "This is something no human has seen before. We're watching a solar system get destroyed."

White dwarfs are the hot remnants of sun-like stars at the end of their lives that have swollen up and discarded their outer layers.

The one acting out the role of the Death Star in the film Star Wars is about 570 light years from Earth in the constellation Virgo.

Using the American space agency Nasa's Kepler space telescope, scientists spotted the doomed planetary object from the dip in brightness caused when an orbiting body crosses in front of a star.

It was the first such object to be seen "transiting" a white dwarf, they reported in the journal Nature.

Evidence suggests the planetoid has about the same mass as Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt of our solar system.

Analysis indicated the presence of a debris disc and the white dwarf's "pollution" by heavy metals consumed from its rocky victim.

"We now have a 'smoking gun' linking white dwarf pollution to the destruction of rocky planets," said PhD student Mr Vanderburg.

Press Association

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