Through a press release, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reported that for the first time a white dwarf star was observed absorbing the remains of stars that were part of its planetary system. The phenomenon was cataloged as “cosmic cannibalism”.
A white dwarf is what remains of a star, like the sun, after it has shed its outer layers and stopped burning fuel through nuclear fusion. This is the first time that astronomers have observed one of these stars consuming rocky-metallic materials rich in nitrogen ice, the main components of the planets.
In addition, the dying star, dubbed G238-44, is swallowing debris from both the central and peripheral zones of the system. The phenomenon could help describe the “violent nature of planetary systems.”
The discovery was made by the international team from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), in the United States, led by Ted Johnson, a NASA engineer. Archival data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the European Space Agency (ESA), as well as data provided by other observatories were essential to diagnose this case of “cosmic cannibalism”.
We have never seen these two types of objects accumulate on a white dwarf at the same time. By studying these white dwarfs, we hope to gain a better understanding of planetary systems that are still intact.
As detailed by NASA, the particular event suggests that the death of G238-44 was violent enough to reach the edges of its solar subdivision, consuming cosmic companions with very different compositions.
According to astronomers, this is the elemental combination, theoretically required, to create a planet with water. Earth’s oceans are presumed to have been made possible by icy asteroids colliding with our nascent pale blue planet.
Therefore, the recent discovery represents an opportunity to examine the development of other planets, including our own. Furthermore, it provides compelling evidence that water does exist, or at least did exist, in other reaches of the universe after all.