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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White Dwarfs Could Support Life. So Where are All Their Planets?

Artist's view of old white dwarfs surrounded by planetary debris. Credit: University of Warwick/Dr Mark Garlick

Astronomers have found plenty of white dwarf stars surrounded by debris disks. Those disks are the remains of planets destroyed by the star as it evolved. But they’ve found one intact Jupiter-mass planet orbiting a white dwarf.

Are there more white dwarf planets? Can terrestrial, Earth-like planets exist around white dwarfs?

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This Brown Dwarf is 2,000 Degrees Hotter Than the Sun

exoplanet hot jupiter transiting its star
This artist’s impression shows an ultra-hot exoplanet as it is about to transit in front of its host star. Credit: ESO

Astronomers have discovered an intense binary star system located about 1,400 light years away. It contains a brown dwarf with 80 times the mass of Jupiter which is bound closely with an incredibly hot white dwarf star. Observations have shown the brown dwarf is tidally locked to the white dwarf, allowing the daytime surface temperatures on the brown dwarf to reach 8,000 Kelvin (7,700 Celsius, 14,000 Fahrenheit) — which is much hotter than the surface of the Sun, which is about 5,700 K (5,427 C, 9,800 F). The brown dwarf’s nightside, on the other hand, is about 6,000 degrees K cooler.

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A Brown Dwarf is Getting Hit With So Much Radiation it's Hotter Than the Sun

Artist view of a hot Jupiter closely orbiting its star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (IPAC)

Hot Jupiters are large gas planets that orbit their star closely. Unlike our Jupiter, which radiates more heat than it gets from the Sun, hot Jupiters get more heat from their star than from their interior. As a result, they can have a surface temperature of 1,000 K rather than the 160 K that Jupiter has. They are one of the more common types of exoplanets and the easiest type of exoplanet to discover.

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Binary Stars Live Complicated Lives, Especially Near the End

Artist's impression of a red giant star. If the star is in a binary pair, what happens to its sibling? Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer

We know what will happen to our Sun.

It’ll follow the same path other stars of its ilk follow. It’ll start running out of hydrogen, swell up and cool and turn red. It’ll be a red giant, and eventually, it’ll become so voluminous that it will consume the planets closest to it and render Earth uninhabitable. Then billions of years from now, it’ll create one of those beautiful nebulae we see in Hubble images, and the remnant Sun will be a shrunken white dwarf in the center of the nebula, a much smaller vestige of the luminous body it once was.

This is the predictable life the Sun lives as a solitary star. But what happens to stars that have a solar sibling? How would its binary companion fare?

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A New Kind of Stellar Explosion Has Been Discovered: Micronovae

The most energetic explosions in the Universe come from stars called supernovae. These galactic bombs have the energy of about 1028 mega-tons. After they detonate, the only thing left behind is either a neutron star or black hole. Another type of stellar explosion is known as a nova which has much less energy and covers the surface of a white dwarf.

Now, a team of astronomers recently discovered a new type of stellar explosion akin to supernovae and novae but with much less energy, and they’re calling it a micronova.

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You can Tell how big a Black Hole is by how it Eats

An artist’s impression of an accretion disk rotating around an unseen supermassive black hole. Credit: Mark A. Garlick/Simons Foundation

Black holes don’t emit light, which makes them difficult to study. Fortunately, many black holes are loud eaters. As they consume nearby matter, surrounding material is superheated. As a result, the material can glow intensely, or be thrown away from the black hole as relativistic jets. By studying the light from this material we can study black holes. And as a recent study shows, we can even determine their size.

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A Nearby White Dwarf Might be About to Collapse Into a Neutron Star

Credit: Giuseppe Parisi

About 97% of all stars in our Universe are destined to end their lives as white dwarf stars, which represents the final stage in their evolution. Like neutron stars, white dwarfs form after stars have exhausted their nuclear fuel and undergo gravitational collapse, shedding their outer layers to become super-compact stellar remnants. This will be the fate of our Sun billions of years from now, which will swell up to become a red giant before losing its outer layers.

Unlike neutron stars, which result from more massive stars, white dwarfs were once about eight times the mass of our Sun or lighter. For scientists, the density and gravitational force of these objects is an opportunity to study the laws of physics under some of the most extreme conditions imaginable. According to new research led by researchers from Caltech, one such object has been found that is both the smallest and most massive white dwarf ever seen.

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Our Part of the Galaxy is Packed with Binary Stars

Binary star systems are everywhere. They make up a huge percentage of all known solar systems: from what we can tell, about half of all Sun-like stars have a binary partner. But we haven’t really had a chance to study them in detail yet. That’s about to change. Using data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft, a research team has just compiled a gigantic new catalog of nearby binary star systems, and it shows that at least 1.3 million of them exist within 3000 light-years of Earth.

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Much of the Lithium Here on Earth Came from Exploding White Dwarf Stars

A classical novae contains a white dwarf, and a larger companion star in orbit around it. The white dwarf attracts gas from its companion, leading to a massive explosion. Illustration Credit: David Hardy

The Big Bang produced the Universe’s hydrogen, helium, and a little lithium. Since then, it’s been up to stars (for the most part) to forge the rest of the elements, including the matter that you and I are made of. Stars are the nuclear forges responsible for creating most of the elements. But when it comes to lithium, there’s some uncertainty.

A new study shows where much of the lithium in our Solar System and our galaxy comes from: a type of stellar explosion called classical novae.

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