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Hubble Captures a Star Ripping Apart a Massive Comet

Feb 10, 2017 10:20 PM EST

A team of scientists at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii has discovered what seems to be a remnant of a massive object that was torn apart by a white dwarf star some 170 light-years from Earth.

According to a report from Gizmodo, the discovery was made using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. Initially, the researchers wanted to observe the stellar atmosphere of the white dwarf WD 1425+540. However, they were surprised when they found a massive object being ripped apart and scattered in the atmosphere of the white dwarf.

The massive object appears to be icy and has the makeup of a comet. This is the first time that astronomers detected debris from comet-like objects to be orbiting around a white dwarf star. White dwarfs are known to rip apart rocky, asteroid-like objects. Due to this, about 25 to 50 percent of white dwarfs are polluted with debris from asteroid.

Using ultraviolet vision of Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), the researchers were able to make measurements that are very challenging to do from the ground. Hubble measured the nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, sulfur, silicon, iron, nickel and hydrogen of the white dwarf's stellar atmosphere, while the Keck observatory provided the measurements for hydrogen, calcium and magnesium.

The researchers found that the debris of the comet were rich in elements that are essential for life including carbon, oxygen, sulfur and nitrogen. It is the first time that nitrogen was detected in the planetary debris that surrounds a white dwarf.

"Nitrogen is a very important element for life as we know it," said lead investigator Siyi Xu of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany, in a press release. "This particular object is quite rich in nitrogen, more so than any object observed in our solar system."

Despite having similar composition with the Halley's Comet, the researchers noted that the comet torn apart by WD 1425+540 is 100,000 times more massive and holds more water.

The white dwarf WD 1425+540 was first recorded in 1974 in the constellation Bootes. It belongs to a binary system, with the distance of its companion star equivalent to 2,000 times the distance of Earth from our Sun.

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