In what sounds like a scene from Star Wars, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has spotted a white dwarf star that appears to be “cannibalizing” a small planet.
Astronomers detailed the finding in an article published Wednesday in the journal Nature. There is “strong evidence” that a rocky object is being ripped apart as it spirals around a distant white dwarf star, according to a statement from NASA.
The finding could confirm the theory that a white dwarf star may be capable of destroying planets within its solar system, according to NASA.
Researchers used NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which hunts for Earth-like planets in the Milky Way Galaxy, to make the discovery. The telescope monitors the brightness of stars and looks for tiny dips in light patterns that could signify an orbiting planet.
“This is something no human has seen before,” said lead author Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in a statement. “We’re watching a solar system get destroyed.”
A white dwarf star is created when a “sun-like star reaches the end of its life, and swells into a red giant and sloughs off its outer layers. The hot, Earth-sized core that remains is a white dwarf star,” according to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The object in peril is in orbit about 520,000 miles from the “death star,” or twice the distance from the Earth to the Moon, according to Vanderburg.
And while the action is taking place 570 light-years from Earth, the demise of the rocky object could hint at what might happen when the Sun becomes a white dwarf star millions of years from now.
“We now have a ‘smoking gun’ linking white dwarf pollution to the destruction of rocky planets,” Vanderburg said in a statement.
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