White dwarf "Death Star" found destroying a planet

A report from NASA this week shows a star literally ripping a solar system apart. Evidence was found by Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and crew on the NASA Kepler K2 mission. It would seem that several rocky objects – some the size of Texas – are in "death spirals" a white dwarf star. Data suggests that the largest object spins around the star extremely quickly, reaching a full rotation once every 4.5 hours.

The Texas-sized rock is around 520,000 miles from the white dwarf, encircling the star at a distance around twice that of our Earth to our Moon). That's not very far away at all! The distance between our Sun and Mercury is a cool 35.98 million miles – and between the Sun and our Earth is 92.96 million miles.

The image you see above comes from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The artist behind this piece of work is Mark A. Garlick.

This discovery was the first planetary object to be observed transiting a white dwarf – ever. In the history of space observations by humans.

"This is something no human has seen before," said Vanderburg. "We're watching a solar system get destroyed."

Upon closer observation – including the 1.2-meter and MINERVA telescopes at Whipple Observatory, the MMT, MEarth-South, and Keck, this crew found a number of additional space bodies orbiting around the white dwarf.

This white dwarf is approximately 570 light-years from our Earth, inside the constellation Virgo. Even from this distance, NASA is able to see signs of heavy elements like silicon and iron by analyzing its light spectrum.

SEE: White dwarf star could be Earth-sized diamond.

"It's like panning for gold – the heavy stuff sinks to the bottom," said Harvard co-author John Johnson (CfA). "These metals should sink into the white dwarf's interior where we can't see them."

This is the first time scientists have observed what was theorized before – that white dwarf stars become "polluted" by elements pulled into them. This theory is substantiated by the appearance of a polluted white dwarf itself, a surrounding debris disk (all manner of rocks and bits), and at least one compact, rocky object.

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

You can learn more about this subject in the paper "A disintegrating minor planet transiting a white dwarf" by authors Andrew Vanderburg, John Asher Johnson, Jason T. Wright, et. all. This paper was published in the scientific journal Nature under code doi:10.1038/nature15527.