Astronomers have discovered a planet the size of Jupiter orbiting closely around the burning remnants of a dead star, the first time that an intact exoplanet has been discovered walking around a white dwarf, according to research published on Wednesday.
The researchers said that the fate of this giant planet, called WD 1586 b, offers a possible insight into our solar system when the sun finally advances into a white dwarf in about five billion years.
As it burns through its stores of hydrogen, a star like the Sun enters the pains of death, at first swelling enormously into a glowing red giant that burns and swallows nearby planets.
Then he collapses, turning it into his burning heart.
This is a white dwarf, which is an extremely dense stellar ember that glows faintly with residual heat energy and slowly fades over billions of years.
Previous research suggested that some white dwarfs could hold distant remnants of their planetary systems.
But so far no intact planets have been discovered in orbit around one of the dead stars.
“The discovery was somewhat surprising,” said Andrew Vanderberg, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who led the research published in Nature.
“An earlier example of a similar system, in which an object was seen passing in front of a white dwarf, only showed a field of debris from a decaying asteroid.”
The planet is about ten times larger than its shrinking parent star WD 1856 + 534.
It was observed sweeping the white dwarf every 1.4 days using the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Reconnaissance (TESS) satellite.
Since there is no discernible debris from the planet around the star, the researchers concluded that it was intact, said Siyi Xu, an assistant astronomer at the US National Science Foundation’s Gemini Observatory.
“We have indirect evidence of planets around white dwarves, and it is surprising to finally find a planet like this,” said Shaw, in a statement from NSF’s NOIRLab.
The finding indicated that the planets could end up in or near the habitable zone of the white dwarf, and could potentially be hospitable to life even after the death of their star, the statement said.
But what remains a mystery is how close the planet came to a white dwarf.
The red giant phase is thought to make it unlikely that nearby planets will survive, when the same process occurs to our sun, it is expected to engulf Venus, Mercury, and possibly Earth as well.
Vanderberg said: “Our finding indicates that WD 1856b must have originally rotated away from the star and then somehow moved inland after the star became a white dwarf.”
“Now that we know that planets can survive the journey without being broken by the gravitational pull of the white dwarf, we can look for other planets that are even smaller.”
After simulating the various scenarios, the authors suggest that WD 1586b may have been thrown into close orbit due to interactions with other planets.
In a separate commentary on the discovery, Stephen Parsons of the University of Sheffield said that the discovery “offers a bewildering possibility to discover additional planets in this system in the future.”
He said that current estimates indicate that about a third of the sun-like stars host planetary systems, while the Milky Way contains about ten billion such stars.
The white dwarf WD 1856 + 534 is located only 82 light-years from Earth, so Parsons said that the gravitational effects of other planets on the white dwarf can be detected through space observatory missions.
“This system therefore opens up a whole new field of exoplanet research,” he added.
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