White Dwarfs are Often Polluted With Heavier Elements. Now We Know Why

In this artist's illustration, lumps of debris from a disrupted planetesimal are irregularly spaced on a long and eccentric orbit around a white dwarf. Credit: Dr Mark Garlick/The University of Warwick

When stars exhaust their hydrogen fuel at the end of their main sequence phase, they undergo core collapse and shed their outer layers in a supernova. Whereas particularly massive stars will collapse and become black holes, stars comparable to our Sun become stellar remnants known as “white dwarfs.” These “dead stars” are extremely compact and dense, having mass comparable to a star but concentrated in a volume about the size of a planet. Despite being prevalent in our galaxy, the chemical makeup of these stellar remnants has puzzled astronomers for years.

For instance, white dwarfs consume nearby objects like comets and planetesimals, causing them to become “polluted” by trace metals and other elements. While this process is not yet well understood, it could be the key to unraveling the metal content and composition (aka. metallicity) of white dwarf stars, potentially leading to discoveries about their dynamics. In a recent paper, a team from the University of Colorado Boulder theorized that the reason white dwarf stars consume neighboring planetesimals could have to do with their formation.

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