The planet is similar in size with Neptune, and, to the surprise of the discoverers, it is over four times the diameter of the star it spins around, which is approximately the size of Earth. But the discovery of the planet orbiting the star happened, partially, by chance, according to Boris Gaensicke, lead author of the study from the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. A bit morbid, perhaps, but it also shows us the fantastic variety and diversity the Universe exhibits - a giant planet being cooked and eaten by its star! Still, the white dwarf won't be gaining much weight from this meal.
"We were stunned when we realized that, when observing hot white dwarfs, we are potentially seeing signatures from extrasolar planet atmospheres", co-author Matthias Schreiber, from the University of Valparaiso in Spain, said in the same statement.
WDJ0914+1914 also provides an intriguing preview of the fate of our own solar system. Sometime after this cosmic carnage, the sun will shed its outer layers and leave behind a burnt-out white dwarf core like WDJ0914+1914. So if we compare the Sun, the Sun is 6,000 - nearly five times as hot.
What's more, according to the worldwide team of researchers who found it, the exoplanet orbits the white dwarf at a distance of only 10 million kilometres, or 15 times the solar radius. When the team analyzed the unique spectra of WDJ0914+1914, they detected the chemical fingerprints of hydrogen, which is somewhat unusual. The blast of high-energy photons this potential world receives from the white dwarf evaporates its atmosphere, which is mainly composed of hydrogen, oxygen and sulphur.
"It was one of those chance discoveries", Gänsicke said in a European Southern Observatory (ESO) press release. "We knew there had to be something exceptional in this system, and we speculated that it could be related to some kind of planetary remnant".
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Researchers believe its distance from our home planet is roughly 2,000 light years, which is more than 476 times the distance of the nearest star to our Sun.
At first, the researchers thought they were looking at a binary, or double, star system with a disk of material surrounding it. "However, our observations show that it is a single white dwarf with a disc around it roughly ten times the size of our sun, made exclusively of hydrogen, oxygen, and sulphur". He stated, "It was crystal clear that there was something extremely exciting going on in the system because we detected emissions of hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur immediately".
The team says that it took a few weeks to figure out that the only way to make a disc of that type was by the evaporation of a giant planet. Their detailed analysis of the disk's composition matched what astronomers would expect if the guts of an ice giant like Uranus and Neptune were vaporized into space. Most of the gas escapes, but some is pulled into a disc swirling into the star at a rate of 3000 tonnes per second. Perhaps the answer lies in a new observation that represents the first evidence of a giant exoplanet around a white dwarf.
The puny sun exerts its dwindling force over the planet, stripping away its atmosphere and spinning an elegant disc of gas around itself in the process. That is, unless it migrated inward after the star transitioned to a white dwarf. We've seen a lot of asteroids, comets, and other small planetary objects hitting white dwarfs, and explaining these events requires larger, planet-mass bodies further out. However, until now, scientists had never found evidence of a surviving giant planet around a white dwarf. At the planet's distance this means it would have been inside the star when it expanded into a red giant - stars like that can be well over one hundred million kilometers in radius!
A newly discovered planet offers new insights into the Solar System after the Sun reaches the end of its life in 5-6 billion years. Eventually, Sun-like stars lose their outer layers, leaving behind only a burnt-out core, a white dwarf.