A team of scientists from the United Kingdom’s University of Warwick captured a photo showing off rings of dust and debris that resulted from the dead star’s gravitational pull being strong enough to rip asteroids apart if they ventured too close. The dark, almost maroon glow seen on the photo is caused by ultraviolet rays illuminating the gas produced by inter-debris collisions within the dust rings. The rings look similar to those on Saturn, but the size of the white dwarf codenamed SDSS1228+1040 and its surrounding debris is significantly larger.
“We knew about these debris disks around white dwarfs for over 20 years, but have only now been able to obtain the first image of one of these disks,” said the study’s lead author, Christopher Manser, of the University of Warwick Astrophysics Group. He explained that the diameter of the gap located inside the dust/debris ring is about 434,960 miles, or half the size of our Sun. They can also fit Saturn, complete with its rings, as they measure just 167,770 miles across. “At the same time, the white dwarf is seven times smaller than Saturn but weighs 2500 times more,” Manser continued, highlighting another interesting point in his team’s study.
Researchers believe that studying such phenomenon could be instrumental in finding out what could happen when our Sun reaches the end of its life. “Over the past decade, we have learned that remnants of planetary systems around white dwarfs are ubiquitous, and over 30 debris disks have been found by now,” said Manser’s fellow University of Warwick researcher Boris Gansicke. “While most of them are in a stable state, just like Saturn’s rings, a handful are seen to change, and it is those systems that can tell us something about how these rings are formed.”