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Scientists watch star ripping neighbor apart in preview of sun's future

A distant white dwarf looks to be steadily destroying a so-called "hot Jupiter" or a smaller dead star.

An illustration of the distant star system alongside an X-ray view of the star. 
NASA/CXC/M. Weiss; NASA/CXC/ASIAA/Y.-H. Chu, et al.

Astronomers using one of NASA's X-ray observatories have spotted a small but spunky star slowly shredding a nearby star or planet, providing a look into the future of our own solar system. 

The white dwarf star KPD 0005+5106, located over 1,300 light-years from Earth, is an example of the later stages of stellar evolution that most stars, including our own, will face toward the end of their lifespan. The majority of stars will expand into red giants as they age and start to run out of fuel. Eventually, this expansion reverses, the giant star loses its outer layers and a slowly fading white dwarf is left behind.

When scientists observed KPD 0005+5106 with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton Observatory, they saw an odd pattern of increasing and decreasing X-ray brightness, indicating the small star was being orbited by something close by. 

"We didn't know this white dwarf had a companion before we saw the X-ray data," You-Hua Chu of the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Academia Sinica in Taiwan, who led the study, said in a statement. "We've looked for the companion with optical light telescopes but haven't seen anything, which means it is a very dim star, a brown dwarf, or a planet."

A paper on the discovery has been published in the Astrophysical Journal.

KPD 0005+5106 is a particularly hot white dwarf, with temperatures on its surface about 36 times hotter than our sun. The object circling it appears to be very close in, meaning it's unlikely to be a very pleasant place. 

"This companion object is about 500,000 miles (805,000 kilometers) away from the white dwarf, only about one thirtieth of the distance from Mercury to the Sun," said study co-author Jesús Toala of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "Whatever this object is, it's getting blasted with heat."

The data suggests the orbiting object could likely be a giant planet similar to Jupiter. If that's the case, such a tormented world would only be able to last for a few hundred years.

"This is a slow demise for this object that's basically being ripped apart by constant gravitational forces," said Martín A. Guerrero, a co-author from The Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia in Spain. 

What's less clear is how the object being so abused by the white dwarf ended up in such a close orbit, or how likely it is Earth could ever face such a fate. Fortunately we won't have a definitive answer to that question for about 5 billion more years.