Although the infamous planet-destroying Death Star from "Star Wars" is fictional, Space.com reports of a white dwarf star that is essentially a real-life Death Star. The white dwarf named WD 1145+017 is currently destroying and disintegrating orbiting planets piece by piece.
White dwarfs are superdense cores of dead stars that are left behind when stars have run out of fuel and shed their outer layers. Most stars, including our beloved sun, will one day become a white dwarf star.
Scientists have understood the process by which a star dies for many years, but this is the first time people have actually seen the immediate effect of a white dwarf on surrounding planets.
"This is something no human has seen before," Andrew Vanderburg, a graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and lead author of the new study, said in a statement. "We're watching a solar system get destroyed."
"What we're seeing are fragments of a disintegrating planet that is being vaporized by [the white dwarf's] starlight and is losing mass," Vanderburg told Space.com. "The vapor is getting lost into orbit, and that condenses into dust which then blocks the starlight." (The object is being destroyed by the white dwarf's intense heat and possibly by its gravitational tides as well, likely after its orbit became unstable and moved inward, the researchers said in the statement.)
Watching the dust from the decomposing object change the light from the white dwarf is a major milestone for understanding stars and the planets that orbit them, the researchers said.
The scientists detailed their findings Feb. 3 in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.