A Distant White Dwarf Is Slowly Devouring an Object 500,000 Miles Away

And it could happen here, too.
Chris Young

Astronomers from Taiwan trawled through data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency's (ESA's) XMM-Newton Observatory and observed a small star, or a white dwarf, destroying what they believe to be a nearby star or planet, a press statement reveals.

The white dwarf star, called KPD 0005+5106, is located more than 1,300 light-years from Earth. White dwarfs are essentially formed when a star is nearing its death. As a star uses up the last of its fuel, it will become smaller and brighter. All of this means that the observation of KPD 0005+5106 provides a potential glimpse into what the very distant future — approximately 5 billion years from now — of our solar system might look like.

In the observations of KPD 0005+5106, the astronomers, from various organizations including the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Academia Sinica in Taiwan, discovered a pattern of increasing and decreasing X-ray brightness. The observation indicated that KPD 0005+5106 has an orbital neighbor.

"We didn't know this white dwarf had a companion before we saw the X-ray data," You-Hua Chu, who led the study, explained in the statement. "We've looked for the companion with optical light telescopes but haven't seen anything, which means it is a very dim star, a brown dwarf, or a planet."

White dwarfs are a window into the universe's past

In a paper published in the Astrophysics Journal, the astronomers explain that the object orbiting KPD 0005+5106 is a relatively close 500,000 miles (805,000 kilometers) away from the white dwarf — that's roughly one-thirtieth of the distance between Mercury and the Sun. They say that it is so close that it is being battered by heat as well as being gradually ripped apart by gravitational forces, meaning it might be completely gone in a few hundred years. That's a very small timescale in astronomical terms — white dwarfs, for example, take billions of years to fade away.

Next, the researchers say they want to conduct more observation to try to figure out how the orbiting object came to be located on such a close orbital path. Last month, scientists from Durham University in the U.K. announced that they discovered the fastest-spinning white dwarf ever observed. That white dwarf also had a close neighbor — a red dwarf star that was feeding it gas, making it rotate once every 25 seconds. White dwarfs are some of the oldest objects in the known universe, meaning that their observation provides a window into the distant past and can help to teach us about the formation of our own solar system. 

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