VLT dead star observations provide a glimpse at the fate of our Solar System
A team of researchers from the UK's University of Warwick has used data collected by the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) to study a distant white dwarf. The data, which was collected over a period of 12 years, provides a rare, detailed look at the star remnant interacting with a disk of material – thought to be the remains of an asteroid. The research has the potential to answer questions about the eventual fate of our own Solar System.
Theobservations focused on a white dwarf, what's left of a Sun-likestar that expanded to become a red giant, before shedding its outerlayers, becoming a small, extremely dense remnant. The white dwarf inquestion, known as SDSS J1228+1040, is particularly interesting asit's surrounded by a disk of glowing gaseous material.
The researchers looked at data collected primarily by theUltraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph and X-shooterinstruments installed on the VLT. The readings detailed the lightemitted from the remnant star and the material surrounding it for aperiod from 2003 up until the present. With such a longtimeline of data, the team was able to look at the system fromdifferent angles, building a more complete understanding of itsnature.
Specifically,the researchers were able to accurately map out the gaseous material surroundingthe white dwarf, confirming that it is indeed a disk, though it isnot yet perfectly formed, exhibiting a lopsided structure.
Thedata led to the conclusion that the disk was formed when an asteroidinteracted with the white dwarf, with its extremely dense gravitytearing it apart. The rings then formed in a similar manner to thoseof Saturn, though on a much larger scale. The distance between thewhite dwarf and the ring system is large enough for Saturn's rings to sit comfortably inside the gap.
Thewealth of data provided by study of such rare, disk-bearing whitedwarfs – only seven of which have so far been located – ishelping us answer key questions regarding the fate of our own SolarSystem. Specifically, it could provide insights into the conditionsthat exist at the end of the life of stars, helping us tounravel the processes that occur, and ultimately gain a more completeunderstanding of our own star's inevitable demise some seven billionyears down the line.