Late last week (November 11, 2015), an international team of astronomers released results of a 12-year study of the white dwarf star SDSS J1228+1040. The team used a technique called Doppler tomography — similar in principle to CT scans of the human body – to map out in detail the structure of glowing gases in a disk surrounding the white dwarf.
They now believe these gases are the remains of an asteroid being devoured by the star.
A white dwarf is essentially a dead star. It’s a small and super dense star, typically the size of a planet. White dwarfs form when a star with a mass about 1.44 times that of our sun – or less – has exhausted its thermonuclear fuel; it’s this fuel in a star’s interior that enables it to shine. Our sun will become a white dwarf billions of years from now, and thus, these astronomers said in a statement that these results:
… give a glimpse of the far-future fate of our solar system.
It’s a tiny glimpse, but these results are hard to come by. Only seven white dwarfs have ever been found that are surrounded by disks of orbiting gases. The astronomers compiled and analyzed 12 years of data from the Very Large Telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile and other observatories. Christopher Manser, a PhD student at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, led the study, which wanted to probe the question of “what would be left?” in a solar system whose central star has become a white dwarf.
The team concluded that they are seeing an asteroid that strayed dangerously close to the dead star and had been ripped apart by the immense gravitational forces – known to astronomers as tidal forces – between it and the white dwarf. This process caused the disk to form.
The team also found that the disk around SDSS J1228+1040 is somewhat lopsided.
And they were able to compare the orbiting disk to the rings of the planet Saturn in our solar system. However, they said:
… while J1228+1040 is more than seven times smaller in diameter than the ringed planet, it has a mass over 2,500 times greater. The team learned that the distance between the white dwarf and its disk is also quite different — Saturn and its rings could comfortably sit in the gap between them.
Boris Gänsicke, a co-author of the study, commented:
When we discovered this debris disk orbiting the white dwarf back in 2006, we could not have imagined the exquisite details that are now visible in this image, constructed from 12 years of data — it was definitely worth the wait.
Bottom line: What is left in a solar system whose central sun has become a white dwarf? An analysis of 12 years of data on the white dwarf star SDSS J1228+1040 shows what our own solar system might become, billions of years from now.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.