By MARK PRIGG FOR DAILYMAIL.COM
A real-life ‘Death Star’ caught is the act of destroying a planet is continuing its destructive journey, researchers have found.
Last year astronomers used the Very Large Telescope in Chile to see an asteroid being ripped apart by a white dwarf – a small star that has ‘run out of fuel’ – and forming a glowing debris ring.
Now, it is believed it may have ‘eaten’ at least 15.
The discovery has provided a glimpse of what is expected to happen to our own solar system when the sun stops burning.
‘Our sun will one day balloon out to become a red giant star, wiping out Mercury and Venus and maybe Earth, before it becomes a white dwarf,’ lead author Boris Gänsicke, an astronomer at the University of Warwick, told Space.com
‘By looking at this white dwarf, we get a look at what the future of the solar system might be like.’
The dead star is a white dwarf known as WD 1145+017, which lies about 570 light-years from Earth in the constellation Virgo, according the the paper, which set to detailed their findings Feb. 3 in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Gänsicke found the killer white dwarf system has rapidly evolved in the few months since the discovery.
‘It’s exciting and unexpected that we can see this kind of dramatic change on human timescales,’ Gänsicke said.
The team ‘identified six, but there are clearly more — it could be 10, maybe 15.’
The bodies are orbiting the dead star at about the same distance as the planetesimal that previous research spotted, and are each two to four times the size of the white dwarf.
It is believed they are huge clouds of gas and dust.
WHAT IS A WHITE DWARF?
A white dwarf is the remains of a smaller star that has run out of nuclear fuel.
While large stars – those exceeding ten ten times the mass of our sun – suffer a spectacularly violent climax as a supernova explosion at the ends of their lives, smaller stars are spared such dramatic fates.
When stars like the sun come to the ends of their lives they exhaust their fuel, expand as red giants and later expel their outer layers into space.
The hot and very dense core of the former star – a white dwarf – is all that remains.
White dwarfs contain approximately the mass of the sun but have roughly the radius of Earth, meaning they are incredibly dense.
The gravity on the surface of a white dwarf is 350,000 times that of gravity on Earth.
They become so dense because their electrons are smashed together, creating what’s caused ‘degenerative matter’.
This means that a more massive white dwarf has a smaller radius than its less massive counterpart.