Scientists using NASA's Hubble Telescope have observed comet-like debris surrounding a white dwarf. This is the very first time that scientists have observed such an event, even more so with a comet that's rich in elements that are essential for life.
The white dwarf WD 1425+540 is roughly 170 light-years away from earth and can be seen in the constellation Bootes, also known as The Herdsman. It was first discovered in 1974 as a part of a wide binary system.
Scientists were using the W. M. Keck Observatory and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to study the white dwarf's atmosphere when they observed the comet-like object falling into the star, being damaged as it did.
Halley-Like Comet But Larger
Upon examining the surface of the comet, they found that it has a structure very similar to Halley's comet except that it is 100,000 times larger and its surface has significantly more water in it. What's more, spectral analysis showed that it is rich in life-building elements such as carbon, oxygen, sulphur and nitrogen.
These findings could be evidence of a belt of comet-like bodies surrounding the white dwarf, not unlike our own solar system's Kuiper belt.
Icy Comet-Like Debris
While observations of debris surrounding white dwarfs are not new, as up to 50 percent of them have been observed to be polluted with scattered remains of passing celestial bodies, this is the first time that scientists observe icy, comet-like debris around the once giant star. This is also the first object observed outside our solar system that has a composition similar to Halley's comet.
The finding is relevant to scientists especially because of the comet's high nitrogen content. In our own solar system, comets and other celestial bodies with these elements continue to float around the Kuiper belt as a sort of remnant from when the solar system was formed. In fact some even believe that it is through these comets that life on earth came to be. Finding these elements in comet debris surrounding a white dwarf 170 light-years away could be evidence that these icy bodies are also present in other planetary systems.
"Nitrogen is a very important element for life as we know it. This particular object is quite rich in nitrogen, more so than any object observed in our solar system," says Siyi Xu of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany, lead of the very team that made the discovery.