“This is something no human has seen before…” An audience was told and it may a preview for how our own solar system will be destroyed. A solar system spiraling around a dead star faced total destruction and disintegration.
For the first time, astronomers have captured the destruction of a solar system. The violent events give us a grim glimpse into Earth’s final fate.
The images were taken by NASA’s Kepler 2 space mission. They reveal the rocky remains of a world being torn apart as it spirals around a dead star in the constellation of Virgo—570 light years from Earth. Scientists reportedly saw chunks of the planet swinging around the white dwarf every 5 hours, placing them in an orbit about 520,000 miles from the star.
“This is something no human has seen before,” Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told reporters. “We’re watching a solar system get destroyed.”
Like our sun, stars are driven by nuclear reactions that transform hydrogen into helium. When the hydrogen runs out, they begin burning heavier elements like helium, carbon, and oxygen. This causes them to expand dramatically and eventually shed its outer layers, leaving only an Earth-sized core.
Vanderburg’s team studied a white dwarf known in astronomical circles as WD 1145+017 and discovered that every 4.5 hours, Kepler 2 detected a 40 percent drop in light from the star, as a chunk of material moved across its face. These initial observations were backed up with further measurements from other telescopes.
In a piece for Nature, Vanderburg describes the results as “the first evidence for rocky, disintegrating bodies around a white dwarf.”
“We know have a smoking gun linking white dwarf pollution to the destruction of rocky planets,” Vanderburg said of the new evidence. Though astronomers are not clear where the rocky objects originated from, one possibility is that the star’s death destabilized the orbit of a neighboring massive planet.
The results are a bit unsettling, given that a similar fate may well await our own solar system. When the sun dies in five billion years, it will expand and engulf inner planets like Mercury and Venus. But if the Earth survives, it may ultimately be shredded as it spirals into a white dwarf where the sun once ways.
“We might be seeing how our solar system could be disassembled in the future,” Vanderburg says.