Of White Dwarfs, “Zombie” Stars and Supernovae Explosions

Artistic view of the aftermath of a supernova explosion, with an unexpected white dwarf remnant. These super-dense but no longer active stars are thought to play a key role in many supernovae explosion. (Copyright Russell Kightley)
White dwarf stars, the remnant cores of low-mass stars that have exhausted all their nuclear fuel, are among the most dense objects in the sky.
Their mass is comparable to that of the sun, while their volume is comparable to that of Earth. Very roughly, this means the average density of matter in a white dwarf would be on the order of 1,000,000 times greater than the average density of the sun.
Thought to be the final evolutionary state of stars whose mass is not high enough to become a neutron star — a category that includes the sun and over 97% of the other stars in the Milky Way — they are dim objects first identified a century ago but only in the last decade the subject of broad study.
In recent years the white dwarfs have become more and more closely associated with supernovae explosions, though the processes involved remained hotly debated.  A team using the Hubble Space Telescope even captured  before and after images of what is hypothesized to be an incomplete white dwarf supernova.  What was left behind has been described by some as a “zombie star.”
Now a team of astronomers led by Stephane Vennes of the Czech Academy of Sciences has detected another zombie white dwarf, LP-40-365 , that they put forward as a far-flung remnant of a long-ago supernova explosion.  This is considered important and unusual because it would represent a first detection of such a remnant long after the supernova conflagration.
This dynamic is well captured in an animation accompanying the Science paper that describes the possible remnant.  Here’s the animation and a second-by-second description of what is theorized to have occurred:
00.0 sec: Initial binary star outside the disk of the Milky Way galaxy. A massive white dwarf accreting
material through an accretion disk from its red giant companion star. The stars orbit around the center of
mass of the binary system.
14.6 sec: The white dwarf reaches the Chandrasekhar mass limit and explodes as a bright Type Ia
supernova. However, the explosion is not perfect; a fraction of the white dwarf shoots out like a shrapnel to the left. The binary system disrupts.
18.0 sec: The supernova explosion again, at an edge – on view. The shrapnel comes at the viewer and passes by.
20.0 sec: After passing by, the remnant flies off towards the disk of the Milky Way towards the spiral arm with the Solar System.
24.0 sec : The fast moving remnant from the solar neighborhood as it passes by the stars in our galactic arm, including the Sun. The remnant gets in the reach of our telescopes. (Copyright Sardonicus Pax)


A supernova — among the most powerful forces in the universe — occurs when there is a change in the core of a star. A change can occur in two different ways, with both resulting in a thermonuclear explosion.

Type Ia supernova occurs at the end of a single star’s lifetime. As the star runs out of nuclear fuel, some of its mass flows into its core. Eventually, the core is so heavy that it cannot withstand its own gravitational force. The core collapses, which results in the giant explosion of a supernova. The sun is a single star, but it does not have enough mass to become a supernova.

The second type takes place only in binary star systems. Binary stars are two stars that orbit the same point. One of the stars, a carbon-oxygen white dwarf, steals matter from its companion star. Eventually, the white dwarf accumulates too much matter. Having too much matter causes the star to explode, resulting in a supernova.

Type Ia supernovae, which are the result of the complete destruction of the star in a thermonuclear explosion, have a fairly uniform brightness that makes them useful for cosmology. The light emitted by the supernova explosion can be, for a short while at least, as bright as the whole of the Milky Way.

Recently, astronomers have discovered a related form of supernova, called Type Iax, which look like Type Ia, but are much fainter. Type Iax supernovae may be caused by the partial destruction of a white dwarf star in such an explosion. If that interpretation is correct, part of the white dwarf should survive as a leftover object.

And that leftover object is precisely what Vennes et al claim to have found.

They have identified LP 40-365 as an unusual white dwarf with a low mass, high velocity and strange composition of oxygen, sodium and magnesium  – exactly as might be expected for the leftover star from a Type Iax event. Vennes describes the white dwarf remnant his team has detected as a “compact star,” and perhaps the first of its kind in terms of the elements it contains.

The team calculate that the explosion must have occurred between five and 50 million years ago.


The two inset images show before-and-after images captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope of Supernova 2012Z in the spiral galaxy NGC 1309, what some call a “zombie star.”. The white X at the top of the main image marks the location of the supernova in the galaxy. A supernova typically obliterates the exploding white dwarf, or dying star.  In 2014, scientists found that this faint supernova may have left behind a surviving portion of the white dwarf star.(NASA,ESA)

In an email exchange, Vennes told me that he has been studying the local white dwarf population for thirty years.

“These compact, dead stars tell us a lot about the “old” Milky Way, how stars were born and how they died,” he wrote.

“Tens of thousands of these white dwarfs have been catalogued over this past century, most of them in the last decade, but we keep an eye on outliers, objects that are out of the norm. We look for exceedingly large velocity, peculiar chemical composition or abnormal mass or radii.

Stephane Vennes, a longtime specialist in white dwarf stars at the Czech Academy of Science.

“The strange case of LP40-365 came unexpectedly, but this was a classic case of serendipity in astronomy. Out of hundreds of targets we observed at the telescope, this one was uniquely peculiar. Fortunately, theorists are very imaginative and the model we adopted to interpret the observed properties of this object were only recently published. Our research on this object was certainly inspired and directed by their theory.”

Vennes says the team was surprised to learn that the white dwarf LP40-365 is relatively bright among its peers and that similar objects did not show up in large-scale surveys such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

“This fact has convinced us that many more similarly peculiar white dwarfs await discovery. We should search among fainter, more distant samples of white dwarfs,” he wrote.

And that search can be done by the European Space Agency’s Gaia astrometric space telescope, with follow-up observations at large telescopes such as the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and the Gemini observatory in Chile.

“It is also likely that our adopted model involving a subluminous {faint} Type Ia supernova will be modified or even superseded by teams of theorists coming up with new ideas. But we remain confident that these new ideas would still involve a cataclysmic event on the scale of a supernova.”

Here is another animated version of the cataclysm described in the paper: 

An ultra-massive and compact dead star, or white dwarf, (shown as a small white star) is accreeting matter from its giant companion (the larger red star). The material escapes from the giant and forms an accretion disk around the white dwarf.
Once enough material is accreted onto the white dwarf, a violent thermonuclear runaway tears it apart and destroys the entire system. The giant star and the surviving fragment of the white dwarf are flung into space at tremendous speeds. The surviving white dwarf shrapnel hurtles towards our region of the galaxy, where its radiation is detected by ground based telescopes. (Copyright Russell Kightley)


A supernova burns for only a short period of time, but it can tell scientists a lot about the universe.

One kind of supernova has shown scientists that we live in an expanding universe, one that is growing at an ever increasing rate.

Scientists also have determined that supernovas play a key role in distributing elements throughout the universe. When the star explodes, it shoots elements and debris into space. Many of the elements we find here on Earth are made in the core of stars.

These elements travel on to form new stars, planets and everything else in the universe — making white dwarfs and supernovae essential to the process that ultimately led to life.



Shredding Exoplanets, And The Mysteries They May Unravel

In this artist’s conception, a tiny rocky object vaporizes as it orbits a white dwarf star. Astronomers have detected the first planetary object transiting a white dwarf using data from the K2 mission. Slowly the object will disintegrate, leaving a dusting of metals on the surface of the star. (NASA)
In this artist’s conception, a small planet or planetesimal vaporizes as it orbits close to a white dwarf star. The detection of several of these disintegrating planets around a variety of stars has led some astronomers to propose intensive study of their ensuing dust clouds as a surprising new way to learn about the interiors of  exoplanet.  (NASA)

One of the seemingly quixotic goals of exoplanet scientists is to understand the chemical and geo-chemical compositions of the interiors of the distant planets they are finding.   Learning whether a planet is largely made up of silicon or magnesium or iron-based compounds is essential to some day determining how and where specific exoplanets were formed in their solar systems, which ones might have the compounds and minerals believed to be necessary for  life, and ultimately which might actually be hosting life.

Studying exoplanet interiors is a daunting challenge for sure, maybe even more difficult in principle than understanding the compositions of exoplanet atmospheres.  After all, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the make-up of planet interiors in our own solar system.

An intriguing pathway, however, has been proposed based on the recent discovery of exoplanets in the process of being shredded.  Generally orbiting very close to their suns, they appear to be disintegrating due to intense radiation and the forces of gravity.

And the result of their coming apart is that their interiors, or at least the dust clouds from their crusts and mantles, may well be on display and potentially measurable.

“We know very little for sure about these disintegrating planets, but they certainly seem to offer a real opportunity,” said Jason Wright, an astrophysicist at Pennsylvania State University with a specialty in stellar astrophysics.  No intensive study of the dusty innards of a distant, falling-apart exoplanet has been done so far,  he said, but in theory at least it seems to be possible.

Artist’s impression of disintegrating exoplanet KIC 12255 (C.U Keller, Leiden University)
Artist’s impression of disintegrating exoplanet KIC 12557548, the first of its kind ever detected. (C.U Keller, Leiden University)

And if successful, the approach could prove broadly useful since astronomers have already found at least four of disintegrating planets and predict that there are many more out there.  The prediction is based on, among other things, the relative speed with which the planets fall apart.  Since the disintegration has been determined to take only tens of thousands to a million years (a very short time in astronomical terms) then scientists conclude that the shreddings must be pretty common  –based on the number already caught in the act.

Saul Rappaport, professor emeritus of physics at MIT, led the team that first identified a disintegrating planet around KIC 12557548, using data from transit light curves collected by the Kepler Space Telescope.  The transits clearly did not indicate the usual small but detectable blockage by a solid body planet,  but were nonetheless intriguing because they were showing that something interesting was crossing (or occulting) the star and trailing an orbiting object.

Rappaport said he was definitely not searching for a dust trail from a disintegrating planet.

“Nobody had suggested that and we weren’t looking for it,” he said. “It took us completely by surprise.  Actually, after we found it, we spent many weeks trying to model it as a collection of solid bodies or something other than a disintegrating planet.  But ultimately we had to face up to what it is – occultation by dust emanating from a planet.”

Four years after his first paper was published, Rappaport said he is now 99 percent certain that KIC 12557548 is a close-in planet slowly disintegrating via the emission of dusty materials, as are three other similar objects subsequently detected.

Rappaport said that speaking generally, measurements of the size of the dust particles coming from those decaying planets would provide very valuable information to scientists, as would any insights into their chemical composition.  But he said that good data will be challenging to collect and equally difficult to interpret.

When an Earth-size planet passes in front of a star, it creates a symmetric dip in the star's light that's shaped like the red curve here. But astronomers detected the strange-looking, blue dip in light from the white dwarf 1145+017. The team suspects the signal comes from a tiny disintegrating planet or asteroid and its comet-like dusty tail. The black dots are measurements recorded by the Kepler spacecraft during its K2 mission. CfA / A. Vanderburg - See more at: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/white-dwarf-eats-planet2610201523/#sthash.p9521Fxi.dpuf
When an Earth-size planet passes in front of a star, it creates a symmetric dip in the star’s light that’s shaped like the red curve here. But astronomers detected the strange-looking, blue dip in light from the white dwarf 1145+017. The team suspects the signal comes from a tiny disintegrating planet or asteroid and its comet-like dusty tail. (CfA /A. Vanderburg)

Unrelated to Rappaport’s work, Wright and a Penn State team, although with from the Arizona State University astrophysicist Steve Desch and others, have just sent a proposal into NASA to fund  disintegrating exoplanet research using ground-based telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope.

The collaboration originated at a meeting of the Nexus for Exoplanet Systems Science (NExSS), a five-year NASA initiative to bring together exoplanet scientists from a variety of disciplines with the goal of having them work together across disciplines.  Organized by Mary Voytek, NASA’s senior scientist for astrobiology, it aims to bring the highly interdisciplinary model of astrobiology to the field of characterizing exoplanets.

“This is a project that really calls for, in fact requires, an interdisciplinary approach,” Desch said.  “This is where astronomy and astrophysics meet planetary science and geology, and that should be a very fruitful place.”

Is a measure of the interdisciplinary effort, their team also includes Casey Lisse at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.  He’s a comet scientist with a specialty in planet formation and astromineralogy.

Jason Wright, associate professor at Penn State University, initiated the collaboration to use disintegrating planets as a pathway to understanding exoplanet interiors. (Gudmundur Stefansson)
Jason Wright, associate professor at Penn State University, initiated the collaboration to use disintegrating planets as a pathway to understanding exoplanet interiors. (Gudmundur Stefansson)

Wright and Desch want to focus on the unusual transit signals from five stars — three M dwarf identified by Kepler, one a burned-out but super-dense white dwarf and other made famous last fall when a substantial and currently impossible-to-explain dust cloud was detected nearby it.  All the known explanations to explain it were deemed inadequate, which led to (last option) suggestions that perhaps it was an alien “megastructure” or Dyson swarm built by intelligent beings.

Wright was part of the group trying to explain the vast cloud around the star — KIC 8462852 or “Tabby’s star,” named after Yale University post-doc and co-founder Tabetha Boyajian) and now suspects that a disintegrating planet could be a source (though he says that Desch was the first to make the case.)

KIC 8462852, informally known as Tabby’s Star, is a magnitude +11.7 F-type main-sequence star located in the constellation Cygnus approximately 1,480 light-years from Earth. Data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope shows that the star displays aperiodic dimming of 20 percent and more. KIC 8462852 is shown here in infrared (2MASS survey, left) and ultraviolet (GALEX). Image credit: IPAC/NASA (infrared); STScI/NASA (ultraviolet).
KIC 8462852, informally known as Tabby’s Star, is a magnitude +11.7 F-type main-sequence star located in the constellation Cygnus approximately 1,480 light-years from Earth. Data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope shows that the star displays unexplained periodic dimming of 20 percent and more. KIC 8462852 is shown here in infrared (2MASS survey, left) and ultraviolet (GALEX) IPAC/NASA (infrared); STScI/NASA (ultraviolet)

The object that orbits a white dwarf star at a distance about the same as between Earth and the moon.  When its discovery was announced last year by Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he said that something unique had been found:  “We’re watching a solar system get destroyed.”

The planet (or planetesimal) orbits its white dwarf, WD 1145+017, once every 4.5 hours. This orbital period places it extremely close to the super-dense star, and that speeds the shredding and evaporating of the planet. But makes it a theoretically easier target to observe.  Each time it orbits is a potentially detectable transit to be captured and studied.

White dwarf stars have also served as an earlier destination for those looking for information about potential insides of planets, but via a more indirect approach.  Because of their greatly heightened gravity, white dwarfs have surfaces covered only with light elements of helium and hydrogen. For years, researchers have found evidence that some white dwarf atmospheres are polluted with traces of heavier elements such as calcium, silicon, magnesium and iron. Scientists have long suspected that the source of this pollution has been asteroids or, what was then theoretical, a small planet being torn apart.

Steven Desch, an astrophysicist at ASU, sees a frequent gap between the work of astronomers and planetary scientists, and hopes to help bridge it.
Steve Desch, a theoretical astrophysicist at ASU, sees a frequent gap between in the exoplanet work of astronomers and of planetary scientists, and hopes to help bridge it. (ASU News)

Another prime target for disintegrating-planet research is the first one identified,  KIC 12557548 b.  Because it is so small — no bigger than Mercury — it’s an object that would never be detected by telescopes looking for transits across a star.  It is, after all, 1500 light years away.  But the dust cloud is much bigger and blocks as much as 1 percent of the light from the star every time it orbits.  To compare, our Jupiter would block about the same amount of the sun’s light in a similar scenario seen from afar.

The team leaders said that while their goal is to collect data that will help them understand the grain size and chemical composition of the dusty planetary remains, they also aim to refine the observing and spectrographic techniques for future observations — most especially on the James Webb Space Telescope.

The JWST, which launches in 2018, will have the capacity to collect information about the disintegrating planets that current instruments cannot.  But time on the telescope will be very costly and competitive, so Wright said the team will be doing the groundwork needed to make disintegrating planets an appealing subject for research.

“A lot of the observational technique has to be invented,” said Wright.  “JWST will be prime time for new science, but before that we need a lot of ground-based pre-study to make the case.”

The proposal also calls for extensive modeling of the dynamics of how dust grains would be released under the pressure of intense gravity and radiation pressure.

Coincidentally, a paper that models exoplanetary interiors authored by Li Zeng of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and others, has been accepted for publication by The Astrophysical Journal.

Making sure it first could reproduce the Preliminary Reference Earth Model (PREM) — the standard model for Earth’s interior — Zeng and his team modified their planetary interior code to predict the structure of exoplanets with different masses and compositions, and applied it to six known rocky exoplanets with well-measured masses and radii.

They found that the other planets, despite their different masses and presumably different chemical makeup, nevertheless all appear to have a iron/nickel cores containing about 30% of the planet’s mass, very similar to the 32% of the Earth’s mass found in the Earth’s core. The remainder of each planet would be mantle and crust, just as with Earth.

The model, however, does not add new information about the observed make-up of exoplanet interiors.  That’s where the disintegration of close-in exoplanets just might come in.

In this Chandra image of ngc6388, researchers have found evidence that a white dwarf star may have ripped apart a planet as it came too close. When a star reaches its white dwarf stage, nearly all of the material from the star is packed inside a radius one hundredth that of the original star. Using several telescopes, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, researchers have found evidence that a white dwarf star – the dense core of a star like the Sun that has run out of nuclear fuel – may have ripped apart a planet as it came too close. ( NASA)
In this Chandra image of globular cluster NGC 6388, researchers have found evidence that another white dwarf star may have ripped apart a planet as it came too close. When a star runs out of nuclear fuel and reaches its white dwarf stage, nearly all of its material from the star is packed inside a radius one hundredth that of the original star. The images was made with from images taken by several telescopes, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. (NASA)