For the first time, scientists using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have witnessed a massive object with the makeup of a comet being ripped apart and scattered in the atmosphere of a white dwarf, the burned-out remains of a compact star. The object has a chemical composition similar to Halley’s Comet, but it is 100,000 times more massive and has a much higher amount of water. It is also rich in the elements essential for life, including nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, and sulfur.
These findings are evidence for a belt of comet-like bodies orbiting the white dwarf, similar to our solar system’s Kuiper Belt. These icy bodies apparently survived the star’s evolution as it became a bloated red giant and then collapsed to a small, dense white dwarf.
Caption: This artist's concept shows a massive, comet-like object falling toward a white dwarf. New Hubble Space Telescope findings are evidence for a belt of comet-like bodies orbiting the white dwarf, similar to our solar system's Kuiper Belt. The findings also suggest the presence of one or more unseen surviving planets around the white dwarf, which may have perturbed the belt to hurl icy objects into the burned-out star.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)