Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, an international team of astronomers have found that at least 1 in 100 white dwarf stars show evidence of orbiting asteroids and rocky planets, suggesting these objects once hosted Solar Systems similar to our own.
ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY PRESS INFORMATION NOTE
16th April 2009
EMBARGOED UNTIL 0001 BST, 20TH APRIL 2009
Ref.: RAS PN 09/19 (NAM 6)
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RAS PN 09/19 (NAM 6, EMBARGOED): SOLAR SYSTEMS AROUND DEAD SUNS?
Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, an international team of astronomers have found that at least 1 in 100 white dwarf stars show evidence of orbiting asteroids and rocky planets, suggesting these objects once hosted Solar Systems similar to our own. Team member Dr Jay Farihi of the University of Leicester will present this discovery on Monday 20th April at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science conference at the University of Hertfordshire.
White dwarf stars are the compact, hot remnants left behind when stars like our Sun reach the end of their lives. Their atmospheres should consist entirely of hydrogen and helium but are sometimes found to be contaminated with heavier elements like calcium and magnesium. The new observations suggest that these Earth-sized stars are often polluted by a gradual rain of closely orbiting dust that emits infrared radiation picked up by Spitzer.
The data suggest that at least 1% to 3% of white dwarf stars are contaminated in this way and that the dust originates from rocky bodies like asteroids (also known as minor planets). In our Solar System, minor planets are the left over building blocks of the rocky terrestrial planets like the Earth. The Spitzer results imply that asteroids are found in orbit around a large number of white dwarfs, perhaps as many as 5 million in our own Milky Way Galaxy.
The new findings indicate the dust is completely contained within the Roche limit of the star -- close enough that any object larger than a few kilometres would be ripped apart by gravitational tides (the same phenomenon which led to the creation of Saturn's rings). This backs up the team’s hypothesis that the dust disks around white dwarfs are produced by tidally disrupted minor planets. In order to pass this close to the white dwarf, an asteroid must be perturbed from its regular orbit further out – and this can occur during a close encounter with as yet unseen planets.
Because white dwarfs descend from main sequence stars like the Sun, the team’s work implies that at least 1% to 3% of main sequence stars have terrestrial planets around them. Dr Farihi comments. “In the quest for Earth-like planets, we have now identified numerous systems which are excellent candidates to harbour them. Where they persist at white dwarfs, any terrestrial planets will
likely not be habitable, but may have been sites where life developed during a previous epoch. “
Perhaps the most exciting and important aspect of this research is that the composition of these crushed asteroids can be measured using the heavy elements seen in the white dwarf.
Dr Farihi sees this as a crucial step forward. “With high quality optical and ultraviolet observations (e.g. the Hubble Space Telescope), we should be able to measure up to two dozen different elements in debris-polluted white dwarfs. We can then address the question, “Are the rocky extrasolar planets we find similar to the terrestrial planets of our Solar System?””.
Dr Jay Farihi
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Leicester
Leicester LE1 7RH
Tel: +44 (0)116 252 3577
Media & PR Officer
University of Hertfordshire
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FURTHER INFORMATION INCLUDING IMAGES
NOTES FOR EDITORS
THE NASA SPITZER SPACE TELESCOPE
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, also in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. For more information about Spitzer, visit http://www.nasa.gov/spitzer
THE EUROPEAN WEEK OF ASTRONOMY AND SPACE SCIENCE
More than 1000 astronomers and space scientists will gather at the University of Hertfordshire for the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS), incorporating the 2009 Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2009) and the European Astronomical Society Joint Meeting (JENAM 2009). The meeting runs from 20th to 23rd April 2009.
EWASS is held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP) and Magnetosphere Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial Physics (MIST) meetings. The conference includes scientific sessions organised by the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA).
EWASS is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield.
THE ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY
The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.