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article imageNASA's K2 discovers dead star vaporizing a mini 'planet'

By Megan Hamilton     Oct 25, 2015 in Science
Mountain View - On its second mission, NASA's Kepler space telescope has found something that sounds dire, but is completely amazing:
A dead star, known as a white dwarf, cannibalizing a small planet that exists within its solar system.
During this mission, dubbed the K2 mission, scientists discovered evidence that showed a small, rocky object being ripped apart as it spirals around a white dwarf, and this validated what they had long thought, Space Daily reports.
"We are for the first time witnessing a miniature "planet" ripped apart by intense gravity, being vaporized by starlight and raining rocky material onto its star," said Andrew Vanderburg, a graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. He is the lead author of the paper, published in Nature.
Data collected by Kepler shows the object in orbit 520,000 miles from the white dwarf--that's about the distance from Earth to the moon and back, People's Pundit Daily reports. Vanderburg and his team also found several more chunks of orbiting material.
The cosmic object, formed from dust, rock and a variety of materials and called a planetesimal, is estimated to about as big as a large asteroid, and it's the first planetary object that has been confirmed orbiting a white dwarf. It does this every 4.5 hours, NASA reports. It orbits extremely close to the white dwarf and its rapacious heat and shredding gravitational force.
On its first mission from May 30, 2014 to Aug. 21, 2014, K2 focused on a patch of sky in the Virgo constellation, measuring the minute change in the white dwarf's brightness. Because of the vantage point of the space telescope, if an object passes in front of a star, a dip in starlight is recorded. If a star's light diminishes from time to time, this indicates the presence of an object in orbit around the star.
As the starlight dimmed, scientists found a pattern that was elongated and sloping, indicating the presence of a comet-like tail. Together these features suggested a ring of dusty debris circling the white dwarf, and what looked like the signature of a small planet being vaporized, NASA reports.
This was the "eureka moment" for Vanderburg, when he realized during the last night of observation what was traveling around the white dwarf.
"The shape and changing depth of the transit were undeniable signatures."
The gravity associated with white dwarfs is extremely intense, which means that these stars are expected to have surfaces that are chemically pure, covered sparsely with elements of helium and hydrogen, Astrobiology Magazine reports. But over the years, scientists have found evidence that the atmospheres of some white dwarfs are covered with traces of heavier elements like calcium, silicon, magnesium, and iron.
It's thought that the source of this pollution comes from an asteroid or small planet being torn apart by the white dwarf's intense gravity.
The star's atmospheric composition was analyzed by using observations made by the University of Arizona's MMT Observatory, near Tucson.
One small mystery in the vast depths of space has been solved, but many more mysteries await us.
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