“We are for the first time witnessing a miniature “planet” ripped apart by intense gravity, being vaporized by starlight and raining rocky material onto its star,” said Andrew Vanderburg, graduate student from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and lead author of the paper published in Nature.
The devastated planetesimal, or cosmic object formed from dust, rock, and other materials, is estimated to be the size of a large asteroid, and is the first planetary object to be confirmed transiting a white dwarf. It orbits its white dwarf, WD 1145+017, once every 4.5 hours. This orbital period places it extremely close to the white dwarf and its searing heat and shearing gravitational force.
During its first observing campaign from May 30, 2014 to Aug. 21, 2014, K2 trained its gaze on a patch of sky in the constellation Virgo, measuring the minuscule change in brightness of the distant white dwarf. When an object transits or passes in front of a star from the vantage point of the space telescope, a dip in starlight is recorded. The periodic dimming of starlight indicates the presence of an object in orbit about the star.
“The eureka moment of discovery came on the last night of observation with a sudden realization of what was going around the white dwarf. The shape and changing depth of the transit were undeniable signatures,” said Vanderburg.
In addition to the strangely shaped transits, Vanderburg and his team found signs of heavier elements polluting the atmosphere of WD 1145+017, as predicted by theory.
Due to intense gravity, white dwarfs are expected to have chemically pure surfaces, covered only with light elements of helium and hydrogen. For years, researchers have found evidence that some white dwarf atmospheres are polluted with traces of heavier elements such as calcium, silicon, magnesium and iron. Scientists have long suspected that the source of this pollution was an asteroid or a small planet being torn apart by the white dwarf's intense gravity.
Analysis of the star's atmospheric composition was conducted using observations made by the University of Arizona's MMT Observatory.
Read more here:http://www.nasa.gov/ames/kepler/nasa-k2-finds-dead-star-vaporizing-mini-planet