Mark A. Garlick

This week, a group of giddy Harvard scientists announced that they've made an unprecedented discovery: A faraway dwarf planet—a dense, dying star—has been spotted actively disintegrating a nearby planet. "This is something no human has seen before," lead researcher Andrew Vanderburg said in a statement, "We're watching a solar system get destroyed." It's rough out there for a solar system.

Vanderburg elaborated to Space.com, telling the site, "What we're seeing are fragments of a disintegrating planet that is being vaporized by [the white dwarf's] starlight."

Advertisement

The discovery answers a question scientists have long puzzled over. By the time young stars become dwarf stars they should have absorbed their heaviest elements into their core. But scientists have, on some occasions, seen these elements in orbit, and wondered where they came from. Data collected via NASA's Kepler mission reveals that the elements are debris from nearby planets dying at its hand. The researchers explain it this way, in a paper published that appears in Nature this week:

Between one-quarter and one-half of white dwarfs have elements heavier than helium in their atmospheres, even though these elements ought to sink rapidly into the stellar interiors … Here we report observations of a white dwarf—WD 1145+017—being transited by at least one, and probably several, disintegrating planetesimal… This system provides further evidence that the pollution of white dwarfs by heavy elements might originate from disrupted rocky bodies such as asteroids and minor planets.

A commentary on the findings, also in Nature, explains: "Analysis of data from the Kepler space observatory and ground-based telescopes has led to the detection of one, and possibly several, minor planets that are in a state of disintegration in orbit around a white dwarf star."

Seems like even the universe is excited for Star Wars.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.