White dwarf

What Happens to Solar Systems When Stars Become White Dwarfs?

In a couple billion years, our Sun will be unrecognizable. It will swell up and become a red giant, then shrink again and become a white dwarf. The inner planets aren’t expected to survive all the mayhem these transitions unleash, but what will happen to them? What will happen to the outer planets?

Right now, our Sun is about 4.6 billion years old. It’s firmly in the main sequence now, meaning it’s going about its business fusing hydrogen into helium and releasing energy. But even though it’s about 330,000 times more massive than the Earth, and nearly all of that mass is hydrogen fuel, it will eventually run out.

In another five billion years or so, its vast reservoir of hydrogen will suffer depletion. As it burns through its hydrogen, the Sun will lose mass. As it loses mass, its gravity weakens and can no longer counteract the outward force driven by fusion. A star is a balancing act between the outward expansion of fusion and the inward force of gravity. Eventually, the Sun’s billions-of-years-long balancing act will totter.

With weakened gravity, the Sun will begin to expand and become a red giant.

This illustration shows the current-day Sun at about 4.6 billion years old. In the future, the Sun will expand and become a red giant. Image Credit: By Oona Räisänen (User:Mysid), User:Mrsanitazier. – Vectorized in Inkscape by Mysid on a JPEG by Mrsanitazier (en:Image: Sun Red Giant2.jpg). CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2585107

The Sun will almost certainly consume Mercury and Venus when it becomes a red giant. It will expand and become about 256 times larger than it is now. The inner two planets are too close, and there’s no way they can escape the swelling star. Earth’s fate is less certain. It may be swallowed by the giant Sun, or it may not. But even if it isn’t consumed, it will lose its oceans and atmosphere and become uninhabitable.

The Sun will be a red giant for about one billion years. After that, it will undergo a series of more rapid changes, shrinking and expanding again. But the mayhem doesn’t end there.

The Sun will pulse and shed its outer layers before being reduced to a tiny remnant of what it once was: a white dwarf.

An artist’s impression of a white dwarf star. The material inside white dwarfs is tightly packed, making them extremely dense. Image credit: Mark Garlick / University of Warwick.

This will happen to the Sun, its ilk, and almost all stars that host planets. Even the long-lived red dwarfs (M-dwarfs) will eventually become white dwarfs, though their path is different.

Astronomers know the fate of planets too close to the stars undergoing these tumultuous changes. But what happens to planets further away? To their moons? To asteroids and comets?

New research published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society digs into the issue. The title is “Long-term variability in debris transiting white dwarfs,” and the lead author is Dr. Amornrat Aungwerojwit of Naresuan University in Thailand.

“Practically all known planet hosts will evolve eventually into white dwarfs, and large parts of the various components of their planetary systems—planets, moons, asteroids, and comets—will survive that metamorphosis,” the authors write.

There’s lots of observational evidence for this. Astronomers have detected planetary debris polluting the photospheres of white dwarfs, and they’ve also found compact debris disks around white dwarfs. Those findings show that not everything survives the main sequence to red giant to white dwarf transition.

“Previous research had shown that when asteroids, moons and planets get close to white dwarfs, the huge gravity of these stars rips these small planetary bodies into smaller and smaller pieces,” said lead author Aungwerojwit.

This Hubble Space Telescope shows Sirius, with its white dwarf companion Sirius B to the lower left. Sirius B is the closest white dwarf to the Sun. Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Bond (STScI) and M. Barstow (University of Leicester).

In this research, the authors observed three white dwarfs over the span of 17 years. They analyzed the changes in brightness that occurred. Each of the three stars behaved differently.

When planets orbit stars, their transits are orderly and predictable. Not so with debris. The fact that the three white dwarfs showed such disorderly transits means they’re being orbited by debris. It also means the nature of that debris is changing.

“The unpredictable nature of these transits can drive astronomers crazy—one minute they are there, the next they are gone.”

Professor Boris Gaensicke, University of Warwick

As small bodies like asteroids and moons are torn into small pieces, they collide with one another until nothing’s left but dust. The dust forms clouds and disks that orbit and rotate around the white dwarfs.

Professor Boris Gaensicke of the University of Warwick is one of the study’s co-authors. “The simple fact that we can detect the debris of asteroids, maybe moons or even planets whizzing around a white dwarf every couple of hours is quite mind-blowing, but our study shows that the behaviour of these systems can evolve rapidly, in a matter of a few years,” Gaensicke said.

“While we think we are on the right path in our studies, the fate of these systems is far more complex than we could have ever imagined,” added Gaensicke.

This artist’s illustration shows the white dwarf WD J0914+1914 (Not part of this research.) A Neptune-sized planet orbits the white dwarf, and the white dwarf is drawing material away from the planet and forming a debris disk around the star. Image Credit: By ESO/M. Kornmesser – https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1919a/, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84618722

During the 17 years of observations, all three white dwarfs showed variability.

The first white dwarf (ZTF J0328?1219) was steady and stable until a major catastrophic event around 2011. “This might suggest that the system underwent a large collisional event around 2011, resulting in the production of large amounts of dust occulting the white dwarf, which has since then gradually dispersed, though leaving sufficient material to account for the ongoing transit activity, which implies continued dust production,” the researchers explain.

The second white dwarf (ZTF J0923+4236) dimmed irregularly every couple of months and displayed chaotic variability on the timescale of minutes. “These long-term changes may be the result of the ongoing disruption of a planetesimal or the collision between multiple fragments, both leading to a temporarily increased dust production,” the authors explain in their paper.

The third star (WD 1145+017) showed large variations in numbers, shapes and depths of transits in 2015. This activity “concurs with a large increase in transit activity, followed by a subsequent gradual re-brightening,” the authors explain, adding that “the overall trends seen in the brightness of WD?1145+017 are linked to varying amounts of transit activity.”

But now all those transits are gone.

“The unpredictable nature of these transits can drive astronomers crazy—one minute they are there, the next they are gone,” said Gaensicke. “And this points to the chaotic environment they are in.”

But astronomers have also found planetesimals, planets, and giant planets around white dwarfs, indicating that the stars’ transitions from main sequence to red giant don’t destroy everything. The dust and debris that astronomers see around these white dwarfs might come from asteroids or from moons pulled free from their giant planets.

“For the rest of the Solar System, some of the asteroids located between Mars and Jupiter, and maybe some of the moons of Jupiter may get dislodged and travel close enough to the eventual white dwarf to undergo the shredding process we have investigated,” said Professor Gaensicke.

When our Sun finally becomes a white dwarf, it will likely have debris around it. But the debris won’t be from Earth. One way or another, the Sun will destroy Earth during its red giant phase.

“Whether or not the Earth can just move out fast enough before the Sun can catch up and burn it is not clear, but [if it does] the Earth would [still] lose its atmosphere and ocean and not be a very nice place to live,” explained Professor Gaensicke.

Evan Gough

Recent Posts

Mars InSight Has One Last Job: Getting Swallowed by Dust on the Red Planet

Normally you don't want dust to get into your spacecraft. That was certainly true for…

5 hours ago

Merging Black Holes Could Give Astronomers a Way to Detect Hawking Radiation

Nothing lasts forever, including black holes. Over immensely long periods of time, they evaporate, as…

6 hours ago

Starlinks Can Produce Surprisingly Bright Flares to Pilots

How can sunlight reflecting off SpaceX’s Starlink satellites interfere with ground-based operations? This is what…

21 hours ago

A Weather Satellite Watched a Space Rock Burn Up Above Spain and Portugal

It's been a momentous May for skywatchers around the world. First the big auroral event…

1 day ago

Galaxies in the Early Universe Preferred their Food Cold

One of the main objectives of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is to study…

1 day ago

A New Way to Measure the Rotation of Black Holes

Sometimes, astronomers get lucky and catch an event they can watch to see how the…

2 days ago