When The Sun Runs Out of Hydrogen, The Earth Will Be Toast

When The Sun Runs Out of Hydrogen, The Earth Will Be Toast

disintegrating_asteroid

NASA's Keplar probe has discovered a white dwarf star tearing apart a rocky planet in what could be a preview of Earth's fate.

In much the same way the Death Star destroyed Alderaan in Star Wars (OK, minus the superlaser), NASA's Keplar probe has found a similar star causing the death of a planet in a system far, far away.

The space telescope aboard the Keplar, launched in 2009, studies a cluster of stars and watches for "blips" in the light, which signify that something could be orbiting the star. One such blip was recently recorded around a white dwarf star in the Virgo constellation, dubbed WD 1145+017, something that had scientists excited. We'll let Nature properly describe a white dwarf:

A white dwarf forms when a relatively low-mass star, such as the Sun, runs out of fuel. After first expanding into a red giant and engulfing the inner planets (which in the Solar System could include Earth), the star sheds its outer layers to leave a small and very dense core. Heavy elements are pulled towards the center of the dead star under its strong gravity.

What made this find so interesting was that there were irregularities in the flickers of light, meaning that scientists were observing long streaks of debris trailing behind the orbiting body. "The white dwarf was ripping it apart by its extreme gravity and turning it into dust," Andrew Vanderburg, a graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told The Smithsonian.

Scientists speculate that the massive gravity pull would start to destroy orbits of surrounding planets and asteroids, sending them careening into each one another. Other bodies would just be pulled apart. In the case of WD 1145+017, scientists speculate that as many as six bodies are orbiting the star, each with their own distinctive dust trail. Further tests indicate that , instead of just the hydrogen and helium that should be in the white dwarf, there are also indications of calcium, iron and aluminium, which are likely being pulled into the star from the shattered orbital debris.

"I cannot overstate how cool this result is," said John Debes, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. "For a long time, we've had a good hypothesis about how white dwarfs get dusty, but to directly observe planetesimals (rocky objects the size of dwarf planets or smaller) evaporating before our eyes is very exciting."

If you are into analyzing highly scientific graphics about light, check out the gallery.

So if the Earth survives the Red Giant phase of our sun's demise, it will likely be pulled apart and vaporized - millions of years from now.

Source: Nature, The Smithsonian

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This is terrible news for any humans still living on Earth at this time. After the red giant phase.

It's interesting to see a glimpse of what could happen, though.

Captcha: space shuttle.

I think we'll need more than that, captcha.

Something Amyss:
This is terrible news for any humans still living on Earth at this time. After the red giant phase.

It's interesting to see a glimpse of what could happen, though.

Captcha: space shuttle.

I think we'll need more than that, captcha.

If it makes you feel any better, the Sun's habitable zone will move off of the Earth long before it even enters its giant phase. Basically all stars are constantly getting hotter as they burn through their fuel, and that means that over cosmic-scale time the star's habitable zone actually moves. For Earth, that's estimated to happen in roughly 1.75 billion years. The Sun is estimated to have a 10 billion year lifespan and is about 4.5 billion years old now, so for roughly the last 40% of its life, Earth will be a baked out rock, orbiting too close to the Sun to support life anymore.

Then Earth just kind of sits there in that barren, lifeless state for about 3.5 billion years more, before the Sun goes into its red giant phase and most likely vaporizes it. At the very least it will melt the entire surface down into molten slag.

So! Yes, we should probably get out there and colonize the stars sometime within the next 1.75 billion years :P

The time during which Earth can actually support life on its surface is relatively fleeting. Life may have begun somewhere around 3.5 billion years ago, but complex multi-cellular animals only popped up 600 million years ago, and they're only able to exist for a relatively brief moment in the life of our planet and the solar system. It's good to have a sense of perspective. Life really is a special thing, and we have all beaten incalculable odds just to get the chance to experience it :)

So it's our future generations problem then eh? In saying so you think they would had reach out to the star and colonized other planets by then?

Scarim Coral:
So it's our future generations problem then eh? In saying so you think they would had reach out to the star and colonized other planets by then?

We're talking about something that will happen in a billion or so years. Humans won't even be a memory by then.

How is this a news article? We've known this fact for at least 30+ years, 'cause I remember learning this in elementary school. It's pretty basic stellar mechanics. Sun stops hydrogen fusion, collapses inward until core pressure reaches high enough to start...helium fusion I think, possibly the 3rd element on the periodic table, I forget the exact reaction. Anyway, starts the next fusion cycle, becomes Red Giant due to the increased forces expanding outward without equal forces pulling inward, consumes earth. Seriously, this is like, retro news, anti-news, this news has ceased to be news long before it was considered news.

Happyninja42:
How is this a news article? We've known this fact for at least 30+ years, 'cause I remember learning this in elementary school. It's pretty basic stellar mechanics. Sun stops hydrogen fusion, collapses inward until core pressure reaches high enough to start...helium fusion I think, possibly the 3rd element on the periodic table, I forget the exact reaction. Anyway, starts the next fusion cycle, becomes Red Giant due to the increased forces expanding outward without equal forces pulling inward, consumes earth. Seriously, this is like, retro news, anti-news, this news has ceased to be news long before it was considered news.

It was mostly theories up until now.
Now, we have "direct" evidence to refine the models.

On a side note, I highly doubt this is a earth-like planet we're speaking about. Simply because it should have been already vaporized by the red giant phase. I bet on a giant gas core: same size, of a rocky planet, but distant enough from the red giant to remain in one piece... until the white dwarf phase, when it has been pulled back closer compared to its initial orbit.

On a second side note, Earth would be destroyed a lot sooner before the red giant phase. I've read somewhere the outer planets might "fall" to the sun in a far future. Meaning Earth could be catapulted out of the solar system in the process, or crushed during a planetary collision with Venus.

So, THE END is in about a billion years. Should I pack my bags now?

Anyone else remember an episode of The Outer Limits about this? It starred Kirsten Dunst. The Sun was shifting into its blue phase, not explosively mind you, and man only survived because an alien signal forced an evolutionary leap that armored peoples' skin against greatly increased UV output. Cool episode.

This explanation in this article seems a bit flawed.

Dying stars don't start sucking planets all of a sudden because they change into a white dwarf (or black hole for that matter). A common misunderstanding, but that's not how gravity works. When the mass of a body stays the same, its gravitational pull stays the same (unless you get really close, as in: close to or inside the radius of the original star). A white dwarf doesn't start pulling harder all of a sudden. Even if the Sun were to change into a black hole of the same mass right now, the planets would just stay in their orbits.

As the Nature article says: "To explain this puzzle, astronomers speculated that the stars might be feeding off the remains of outer planets and asteroids, which could have been kicked into the inner solar system during the white dwarf's turbulent formation and broken up by its intense gravity."

It's the formation of the white dwarf (red giants shift a lot of mass around, not to mention heat and radiation) that starts knocking things out of their proper orbit and into the gravity well of the white dwarf, not the white dwarf itself.

Happyninja42:
How is this a news article? We've known this fact for at least 30+ years, 'cause I remember learning this in elementary school. It's pretty basic stellar mechanics. Sun stops hydrogen fusion, collapses inward until core pressure reaches high enough to start...helium fusion I think, possibly the 3rd element on the periodic table, I forget the exact reaction. Anyway, starts the next fusion cycle, becomes Red Giant due to the increased forces expanding outward without equal forces pulling inward, consumes earth. Seriously, this is like, retro news, anti-news, this news has ceased to be news long before it was considered news.

This.

I mean, I love learning about the universe from all manner of sources, but this isn't exactly new info.

Besides, we all know that the red giant will be kept back long enough for the Doctor to show up with Rose and meet the Face of Boe.

If humans are still around in a billion years, I have a feeling we will have all turned ourselves into beings of pure energy or transferred our consciousnesses into robots and colonized a few thousand other planets.

So...thanks for the memories earth!

mtarzaim02:

Happyninja42:
How is this a news article? We've known this fact for at least 30+ years, 'cause I remember learning this in elementary school. [...]

It was mostly theories up until now.
Now, we have "direct" evidence to refine the models.

I thought the same (how is this news?) before I read the article. But yeah, even "a good hypothesis" is just a hypothesis.

I hope it's buttered toast.

No big surprise there. However, learning what we've learned of our solar system, perhaps the likes of Mars, Europa, and Pluto - You know, the other places with water. - will become nicer. Can't say for sure, but as the old saying goes, 'Where there's life, there's hope.".

 

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