Tag Archives: white dwarfs

Astronomers detect the first exoplanet orbiting a white dwarf

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.

In a paper published today in Science, astronomers show that Type 1a supernovae, the kind used to measure the expansion rate of the universe, can be caused in more than one way, something not previously expected.

The uncertainty of science: In a paper published today in Science, astronomers show that Type 1a supernovae, the kind used to measure the expansion rate of the universe, can be caused in more than one way, something not previously expected.

Andy Howell, second author on the study, said: “It is a total surprise to find that thermonuclear supernovae, which all seem so similar, come from different kinds of stars. It is like discovering that some humans evolved from ape-like ancestors, and others came from giraffes. How could they look so similar if they had such different origins?” Howell is the leader of the supernova group at LCOGT, and is an adjunct faculty member in physics at UCSB.

Recently, some studies have found that Type Ia supernovae are not perfect standard candles –– their brightness depends on the type of galaxy in which they were discovered. The reason is a mystery, but the finding that some Type Ia supernovae come from different progenitors would seem to suggest that the supernova’s ultimate brightness may be affected by whether or not it comes from a nova or a white dwarf merger.

“We don’t think this calls the presence of dark energy into question,” said Dilday. “But it does show that if we want to make progress understanding it, we need to understand supernovae better.”

Astronomers now believe that Type 1a supernovae — used to discover dark energy — can be produced in two different ways.

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers now believe that Type 1a supernovae — used to discover dark energy — can be produced in two different ways.

Type Ia supernovae are known to originate from white dwarfs – the dense cores of dead stars. White dwarfs are also called degenerate stars because they’re supported by quantum degeneracy pressure. In the single-degenerate model for a supernova, a white dwarf gathers material from a companion star until it reaches a tipping point where a runaway nuclear reaction begins and the star explodes. In the double-degenerate model, two white dwarfs merge and explode. Single-degenerate systems should have gas from the companion star around the supernova, while the double-degenerate systems will lack that gas.

For astronomers, this possibility raises several conflicting questions. If two different causes produce Type 1a supernovae, could their measurement of dark energy be suspect? And if not, why is it that these two different causes produce supernovae explosions that look so much alike?

New data suggests that the crash of two white dwarf stars caused the nearest supernovae in 25 years

New data has found that the crash of two white dwarf stars not only caused the nearest supernova in 25 years, but appear to be the prime cause for these types of supernovae.

The data also says that there are no white dwarf primary systems in the Milky Way that are candidates to go supernova in this way. Thus, we can all sleep easy tonight!

White dwarf stars in a dance of death

White dwarf stars in a dance of death.

[The binary pair of] white dwarfs are so near they make a complete orbit in just 13 minutes, but they are gradually slipping closer together. About 900,000 years from now – a blink of an eye in astronomical time – they will merge and possibly explode as a supernova. By watching the stars converge, scientists will test both Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the origin of some peculiar supernovae.

The two white dwarfs are circling at a bracing speed of 370 miles per second (600 km/s), or 180 times faster than the fastest jet on Earth. “I nearly fell out of my chair at the telescope when I saw one star change its speed by a staggering 750 miles per second in just a few minutes,” said Smithsonian astronomer Warren Brown, lead author of the paper reporting the find.

The brighter white dwarf contains about a quarter of the Sun’s mass compacted into a Neptune-sized ball, while its companion has more than half the mass of the Sun and is Earth-sized. A penny made of this white dwarf’s material would weigh about 1,000 pounds on Earth. Their mutual gravitational pull is so strong that it deforms the lower-mass star by three percent. If the Earth bulged by the same amount, we would have tides 120 miles high. [emphasis mine]