A Disintegrating Minor Planet Transiting a White Dwarf
Ciardi, David R.
Wittenmyer, Robert A.
Wright, Jason T.Note: Order does not necessarily reflect citation order of authors.
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CitationVanderburg, Andrew, John Asher Johnson, Saul Rappaport, Allyson Bieryla, Jonathan Irwin, John Arban Lewis, David Kipping, et al. 2015. A Disintegrating Minor Planet Transiting a White Dwarf. Nature 526, no. 7574: 546–549. doi:10.1038/nature15527.
AbstractWhite dwarfs are the end state of most stars, including the Sun, after they exhaust their nuclear fuel. Between 1/4 and 1/2 of white dwarfs have elements heavier than helium in their atmospheres1,2, even though these elements should rapidly settle into the stellar interiors unless they are occasionally replenished3–5. The abundance ratios of heavy elements in white dwarf atmospheres are similar to rocky bodies in the Solar system6,7. This and the existence of warm dusty debris disks8–13 around about 4% of white dwarfs14–16 suggest that rocky debris from white dwarf progenitors’ planetary systems occasionally pollute the stars’ atmospheres17. The total accreted mass can be comparable to that of large asteroids in the solar system1. However, the process of disrupting planetary material has not yet been observed. Here, we report observations of a white dwarf being transited by at least one and likely multiple disintegrating planetesimals with periods ranging from 4.5 hours to 4.9 hours. The strongest transit signals occur every 4.5 hours and exhibit varying depths up to 40% and asymmetric profiles, indicative of a small object with a cometary tail of dusty effluent material. The star hosts a dusty debris disk and the star’s spectrum shows prominent lines from heavy elements like magnesium, aluminium, silicon, calcium, iron, and nickel. This system provides evidence that heavy element pollution of white dwarfs can originate from disrupted rocky bodies such as asteroids and minor planets.
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