NASA spots ‘survivor’ planet orbiting a dead star for the first time

Data collected from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and retired Spitzer Space Telescope has indicated a first for astronomers. More than 80 lightyears away is a stellar corpse of a star, which is called a white dwarf, and is surprisingly small for a star.

The star, called WD 1856+534, is only about 40 percent larger than Earth, which is tiny for a stellar object.

The Sun, for reference, is 109 times wider than Earth, which goes to show that WD 1856+534 is extremely small.

However, what was more surprising is that when the star died, a huge planet orbiting it managed to stay intact, and continues to circle to white dwarf.

The planet in question is called WD 1856 b and is about the same size as Jupiter and seven times larger than the star it orbits.

According to data from TESS and Spitzer, the planet orbits the star every 34 hours – more than 60 times faster than Mercury orbits our Sun.

The findings stunned scientists, who state that when a star dies, it usually destroys all the planets in its vicinity due to its supernova – an implosion when it runs out of fuel.

Andrew Vanderburg, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who helped to analyse the data, said: “WD 1856 b somehow got very close to its white dwarf and managed to stay in one piece.

“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.”

The team believe that the planet was initially 50 times father away in its orbit than it currently is, before the star died.

That is why the planet may have been able to survive the destructive explosion which usually incinerated everything around it.

Siyi Xu, an assistant astronomer at the international Gemini Observatory in Hilo, Hawai, said: “We’ve known for a long time that after white dwarfs are born, distant small objects such as asteroids and comets can scatter inward towards these stars.

“They’re usually pulled apart by a white dwarf’s strong gravity and turn into a debris disk.

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“That’s why I was so excited when Andrew told me about this system.

“We’ve seen hints that planets could scatter inward, too, but this appears to be the first time we’ve seen a planet that made the whole journey intact.”

Juliette Becker, a 51 Pegasi b Fellow in planetary science at Caltech (California Institute of Technology) in Pasadena, added: “The most likely case involves several other Jupiter-size bodies close to WD 1856 b’s original orbit.

“The gravitational influence of objects that big could easily allow for the instability you’d need to knock a planet inward.

“But at this point, we still have more theories than data points.”

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