White Dwarf Stars Predict Our Solar System’s Demise

by Tammy Plotner on June 22, 2011

A Hubble Space Telescope color image of a small portion of the cluster only 0.63 light-years across reveals eight white dwarf stars (inside blue circles) among the cluster's much brighter population of yellow sun-like stars and cooler red dwarf stars. (Credit: Harvey Richer (University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada) and NASA)

With no more volume than could be contained within a teaspoon, the material that makes up a white dwarf star weighs tons. Smaller than the diameter of Earth, and a direct family member of stars like our own Sol, these stellar gnomes could predict our eventual fate.

Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, Nathan Dickinson, a postgraduate student in the University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, is hard at work analyzing chemical compositions of white dwarf stars for his PhD. Unlike many students interested in “heavy metal”, Dickinson is more interested in “heavy elements”. The older, more cool models could contain elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, silicon… while the hot youngsters show heavy elements like calcium and magnesium. These weighty basics occur at extreme heat and sometimes, even to excess. The cremation generation?

“Understanding whether the extra material in hot white dwarfs comes from torn up planets is important,” emphasizes Dickinson. “It can give us an idea of how these ancient planetary systems evolve as the star ages, so we get a fuller picture of how solar systems die. However, they sometimes exhibit more of this material than is expected, which raises the question of whether this extra material also came from planets or whether it originated elsewhere, perhaps in clouds around the star.”

Past research has shown that anywhere from 1 to 3% of white dwarf stars can be contaminated by an influx of materials from closely orbiting dust clouds. What makes up these clouds? It could be rocky debris like asteroids. Held within the Roche Limit, these planetoids are mulched by gravitational tides – just like Saturn’s ring system.

“Working at the forefront of this scientific area is extremely exciting,” says Dickinson. “I find being one of a relatively small community of people in the world to work on this particular area amazing. This work is helping to shape our understanding of how most stars end their lives, how solar systems die, how the environment around these ancient stars behaves and what will ultimately happen to the vast majority of stars in the galaxy.”

And really close to home…

Original Story Source: Science Daily.

About 

Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

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