Scientists have, for the first time, captured an image of an asteroid as it was being torn apart by a dead star resulting in the formation of a glowing ring of debris similar to that of Saturn's disk.

Christopher Manser, of the University of Warwick's Astrophysics Group in the UK, said that they have long been aware about debris disks around white dwarfs but this is the first time that they were able to capture an image of one of these disks giving them unprecedented insight of these systems.

The image, which showed a spiral-like structure that the researchers believe is related to collisions of dust grains, revealed formations that cannot be detected in a single snapshot confirming that these systems are indeed disc-like.

For their study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Manser and colleagues investigated the star called SDSS1228+1040 capturing its image using Doppler tomography. The method is similar to Computed Tomography (CT) used in hospitals which take scans from different angles and then combine these into a single image in a computer.

The method the researchers used involved taking data over a period of 12 years from 2003 to 2015 as the disk rotates slowly by itself. The data were collected from observations of the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope. Several instruments such as the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph and X-shooter were also used to acquire the images.

Although the white dwarf and its debris look similar to Saturn's ring, the size of the observed system is several times greater.

"The diameter of the gap inside of the debris ring is 700,000 kilometers, approximately half the size of the Sun and the same space could fit both Saturn and its rings," Manser said. "The white dwarf is seven times smaller than Saturn but weighs 2500 times more". 

The researchers noted that orbiting disks of gaseous material do not commonly surround white dwarfs as there are only seven cases on record. They concluded that an asteroid likely strayed dangerously close to the star resulting in it being torn apart by the immense tidal forces.

The researchers said that systems such as the SDSS1228+1040 offer a glimpse of the solar system's future once the Sun is out of fuel. Observations of these systems can provide crucial answers to questions on our planetary system and the fate of the solar system.

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