NASA observes a dying star's "cosmic cannibalism" of nearby planets

NASA observes a dying star’s “cosmic cannibalism” of nearby planets

TORONTO (CTV network) – For the first time, NASA astronomers say they have observed a dead star tearing up a planetary system and consuming material from other planets, which they say provides insights into the beginning and end of life here on earth.

Data collected from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and other observational projects were used to analyze a white dwarf star – which is the dying, dense remnant of a star like the Earth’s sun – called G238-44.

When stars collapse, the density of the remains often attracts other objects in space. In the case of G238-44, the white star was observed violently disturbing the inner and outer parts of a nearby planetary system. The resolution of the planetary system around G238-44 also gives scientists the chance to see the ingredients of a planet – what materials they consist of and in what quantities, to better understand which elements, metals and other materials make up a planet.

This case study in “cosmic cannibalism,” was published by NASA on Wednesdayis crucial for understanding our universe and its newly formed system, say researchers.

NASA scientists also noted that the white star seemed to suck away both rocky and icy debris from nearby bodies. Scientists say that the suction of icy debris is particularly interesting because of what it suggests about how water is found on different moons or planets in the universe. Scientists suggest that icy debris crashes into dry, rocky planets “watering” them, which may be how water was delivered to Earth billions of years ago.

“We have never seen both of these objects gather on a white dwarf at the same time,” said Ted Johnson, the lead researcher in a press release. “By studying these white dwarfs, we hope to gain a better understanding of planetary systems that are still intact.”

Observations of this white dwarf also gave scientists the opportunity to study how our own planetary system can collapse at the end of our solar life.

When a star first begins to die, it expands, changes the orbits of all nearby planets, and forcibly pushes smaller objects such as asteroids or moons into dramatic and eccentric orbits. But when the star collapses, it becomes dense, which can pull some of the objects in an irregular orbit too close to the white dwarf. The force of the white dwarf tears these objects apart and turns them into gas or dust that forms a ring around the dying star before it falls on its surface.

By observing how this process occurred with G238-44, scientists can begin to understand how the process can replicate when the earth’s sun begins to die.

Research suggests that as our sun begins to expand at the end of its life, it is likely to engulf and evaporate the first three planets in our solar system, including Earth, before its violent battles begin to disrupt the orbits of the remaining planets, much like the planetary system surrounds G238-44.

But fear not – scientists say the end of the sun’s life is unlikely to happen until 5 billion years from now, so there is plenty of time to find out.

The death of a star has so violently disrupted its planetary system that the dead star left behind, called a white dwarf, sucks debris from both the inner and outer reaches of the system. This is the first time astronomers have observed a white dwarf star consuming both rocky metallic and icy material, the ingredients of the planets.

Archival data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and other NASA observatories were crucial in diagnosing this case of cosmic cannibalism. The findings help to describe the violent nature of developed planetary systems and can tell astronomers about the composition of newly formed systems.

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Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Paul Morris: Main producer

Music & Sound

“Through a Computer Screen” by Raphael Olivier [SACEM] via KTSA Publishing [SACEM] and Universal Production Music

ESA credit:

Ring of rocky debris around a white dwarf star (artist’s impression)

Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI and G. Bacon (STScI)

Evaporating extrasolar planet, from Video (artist’s impression)

Credit: ESA, Alfred Vidal-Madjar (Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris, CNRS, France) and NASA.

Red giant sun

Credit: ESA / Hubble (M. Kornmesser & LL Christensen)

Fly through our solar system

Credit: ESA / Hubble (M. Kornmesser & LL Christensen)

ESO credit:

Comets in the solar system

On-screen credit with: ESO / L. Calçada / N. Risinger (

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