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01.11.06

Comet 'Bites the Dust' Around Dead Star

This artist's concept illustrates a comet being torn to shreds around a dead star, or white dwarf, called G29-38. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope observed a cloud of dust around this white dwarf that may have been generated from this type of comet disruption. The findings suggest that a host of other comet survivors may still orbit in this long-dead solar system.

The white dwarf G29-38 began life as a star that was about three times as massive as our sun. Its death involved the same steps that the sun will ultimately undergo billions of years from now. According to theory, the G29-38 star became brighter and brighter as it aged, until it bloated up into a dying star called a red giant. This red giant was large enough to engulf and evaporate any terrestrial planets like Earth that happened to be in its way. Later, the red giant shed its outer atmosphere, leaving behind a shrunken skeleton of star, called a white dwarf. If the star did host a planetary system, outer planets akin to Jupiter and Neptune and a remote ring of icy comets would remain.

The Spitzer observations provide observational evidence for this orbiting outpost of comet survivors. Astronomers speculate that one such comet was knocked into the inner regions of G29-38, possibly by an outer planet. As the comet approached very close to the white dwarf, it may have been torn apart by the star's tidal forces. Eventually, all that would be left of the comet is a disk of dust.

This illustration shows a comet in the process of being pulverized: part of it still exists as a chain of small clumps, while the rest has already spread out into a dusty disk. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke apart in a similar fashion when it plunged into Jupiter in 1994.