One day, the Sun will become a white dwarf star. All its mass will collapse into an area about the size of Earth, but so much more dense that the force of its gravity will pull in anything that gets near it.
That’s what astronomers think, at least, and recently, they got a glimpse of our planet’s fate. The Kepler Space Telescope caught an image of a white dwarf pulling in and shredding pieces of destroyed planets. A group of scientists, writing in Nature, described the phenomenon, evidence that this will be how Earth finally ends, as well.
The star that the astronomers observed is WD1145+017, and it’s 570 light-years away. Before now, the evidence that scientists had of white dwarves’ destructive power was the signature of heavy elements on the stars’ surfaces. Those don’t normally appear on the surface of stars, and their presence indicated that rocky bodies brought them there.
But this is the first time that scientists observed the process in action. They saw one or more “disintegrating planetesimals” passing around the star ever 4.5 to 4.9 hours, they report. The passing objects looked like “a small object with a cometary tail of dusty effluent material.” In other words, parts of a broken up planet were spiraling towards the dying star, leaving a trail of dust behind them.
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