Scientists Witness Planetary Destruction by Real Death Star

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The Death Star from Star Wars is one of the most menacing space stations in sci-fi history. Not only is its size impressive, but it has the power to destroy entire planets with its superlaser. Scientists have since used the name to describe extraordinary space discoveries, including galaxies and, most recently, a white dwarf star that is disintegrating a minor planet in its orbit.

"This is something no human has seen before," said Andrew Vanderburg, lead author of a new study published in Nature and graduate student at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "We're watching a solar system get destroyed." According to the researchers, the disintegrating mass is the "first planetary object to be seen transiting a white dwarf."

As recorded by NASA's K2 Kepler satellite, the white dwarf star's brightness fluctuates every 4.5 hours, which helped draw attention to the destructive scene. Using the data from K2 and other sources, the researchers found heavy metal debris "polluting" the space around the star. "It's like panning for gold—the heavy stuff sinks to the bottom. These metals should sink into the white dwarf's interior where we can't see them," said co-author John Johnson. "We now have a 'smoking gun' linking white dwarf pollution to the destruction of rocky planets," added Vanderburg.

According to some estimates, it will take anywhere between four and five billion years for our sun to die and become a white dwarf, so this is one cosmic danger that we do not have to worry about.