Artist's concept of Comet-Like Object Falling Toward White Dwarf (NASA)
Artist's concept of Comet-Like Object Falling Toward White Dwarf (NASA)

Earth-Like Dwarf Planet Found by Hubble, German Researchers Upbeat

NASA’s Hubble space telescope found a white dwarf star whose atmosphere has all the ingredients suitable for life and is rich in materials or building blocks for life such as carbon, nitrogen, as well as oxygen and hydrogen, besides the components of water.

The white dwarf is roughly 170 light-years from Earth in the constellation Boötes, the Herdsman. It was first recorded in 1974 and is part of a wide binary system, with a companion star separated by 2,000 times the distance that the Earth is from the sun.

Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, researchers for the first time have witnessed a massive comet-like object being ripped apart and scattered in the atmosphere of a white dwarf. The white dwarf planets are burned-out remains of a compact star.

The dwarf planet has a chemical composition similar to Halley’s Comet, but it is 100,000 times more massive and has a much higher amount of water with all the elements of nitrogen, carbon, oxygen and sulfur, which are essential for life and form a belt of comet-like bodies orbiting it.

These atmospheric features are similar to Kuiper Belt in our solar system and the icy bodies apparently survived the star’s evolution as it became a bloated red giant and then collapsed to a small, dense white dwarf.

Unlike many white dwarfs which are polluted with infalling debris, the new dwarf planet is made of icy, comet-like material which has been seen polluting this white dwarf’s atmosphere. The study also suggests the presence of unseen, surviving planets in the belt and worked as a “bucket brigade” to draw the icy objects into the white dwarf.

The white dwarf planet also has a companion star in the belt, causing objects from the belt to travel toward the burned-out star.

Siyi Xu of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany led the team that made the discovery of the dwarf. He said this was the first time nitrogen was detected in the planetary debris that falls onto a white dwarf.

“Nitrogen is a very important element for life as we know it,” Xu explained. “This particular object is quite rich in nitrogen, more so than any object observed in our solar system.”

Our own Kuiper Belt, beyond Neptune’s orbit, is home to many such dwarf planets, comets, and other small bodies left over from the formation of the solar system. It is believed that similar comets from the Kuiper Belt may have been responsible for delivering water and the basic building blocks of life to Earth billions of years ago.

The team used Hubble to measure nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, silicon, sulfur, iron, nickel, and hydrogen and another observatory – the W.M. Keck Observatory to study the calcium, magnesium, and hydrogen. The ultraviolet vision of Hubble’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) allowed the team to make measurements that are very difficult to do from the ground.

This is the first object found outside our solar system that is akin to Halley’s Comet in composition, said the team.

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