Astronomers announced today that they have detected the first exoplanet orbiting a white dwarf, meaning that it somehow survived the star’s expansion into a red giant.
The way a white dwarf is created destroys nearby objects either by incineration or gravitational destruction. White dwarfs form when stars like the Sun near the end of their life cycles. They swell up, expand to hundreds and even thousands of times their regular size, forming a red giant. Eventually, that outer, expanded layer is ejected from the star and only a hot, dense white dwarf core remains.
So how did a planet, known as WD 1856 b, that is Jupiter-like get into such a close proximity that it completes an orbit of the white dwarf (that is only 18,000 km / 11,000 miles across) every 34 hours?
“WD 1856 b somehow got very close to its white dwarf and managed to stay in one piece,” said Andrew Vanderburg, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The white dwarf creation process destroys nearby planets, and anything that later gets too close is usually torn apart by the star’s immense gravity. We still have many questions about how WD 1856 b arrived at its current location without meeting one of those fates.”
Here we go again: This news story, as well as all of the press releases for this announcement (here, here, here, and here) — in their effort to hype this release — all conveniently forget to mention that the very first exoplanets ever discovered back in 1992 actually orbited a pulsar, the remains of a star that had not only died but had died in a cataclysmic supernova explosion. Moreover, that discovery was not of one exoplanet, but three, forming a solar system of three rocky terrestrial exoplanets all orbiting the pulsar at distances less than 43 million miles, which would put them inside the orbit of Venus.
How those terrestrial planets survived a supernova was a mystery. Today’s discovery only heightens that same puzzle, as this Jupiter-sized exoplanet orbits much closer to its white dwarf.
Regardless, the press releases from these universities and NASA should have made these facts clear. Instead, they pump up this discovery as if it is the very first ever. Today’s discovery might have unique components (the first hot Jupiter exoplanet orbiting a white dwarf) but it isn’t the first of this kind, not by a long shot.
Expect the press by tomorrow to compound this failure. Modern reporters seem completely uneducated about the subjects they write about, and also seem all-to-willing to accept on faith whatever public relations departments tell them.
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