First 'intact' planet found circling a dead star — this Jupiter-sized anomaly is in orbit rather than being pulled apart at the seams

First 'intact' planet found circling a dead star — this Jupiter-sized anomaly is in orbit rather than being pulled apart at the seams
Illustration of WD 1856 b, a potential Jupiter-size planet, orbiting its much smaller host star, a dim white dwarfNASA

  • A new planet dubbed WD 1856 b has been found intact even as it orbits a white dwarf, the corpse of a dead star.
  • Dead stars normally rip apart any planet that dares to come close.
  • Located only 80 light years from Earth, the Jupiter-sized planet only takes 34 hours to complete one orbit around its dead star.
When stars die, it's not a peaceful process and everything within its reach is left in embers. But, one resilient little planet dubbed WD 1856 b may be a survivor, according to scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

This Jupiter-sized anomaly of a planet is part and parcel of a three-star system that lies 80 light-years away from Earth. It was spotted orbiting a white dwarf — a corpse of a dead star that no longer has any fuel to run on.

WD 1856 b is around seven times larger than its white dwarf companion, and it only takes 34 hours to complete one orbit. That means a year on WD 1856 is only around a day and a half on Earth.

“WD 1856b somehow got very close to its white dwarf and managed to stay in one piece,” said Andrew Vanderburg, the lead author of the study published in Nature.

WD 1856 b evades destruction
Vanderburg explains that normally when a white dwarf forms, it destroys all nearby planets and anything that tries to come close thereafter is torn apart by the star’s colossal gravity.

According to him, it’s unlikely that WD 1856 b was nearby when the star transitioned by being a red giant into a white dwarf. Red giants engulf and incinerate anything that’s in their path.

Instead, WD 1856 b more likely formed at a different location — an estimated 50 times further away — then somehow migrated towards the dead star.

“We’ve known for a long time that after white dwarfs are born, distant small objects such as asteroids and comets can scatter inward towards these stars,” said co-author Siyi Xu. However, she also points out that most of these objects get pulled apart by the star’s gravity and turn into a disk of debris.

A lot of questions still need answers
How this anomaly came to occur is a question the researchers at NASA are still trying to figure out. Even the matter of whether WD 1856 b is a planet remains unclear.

It was spotted using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which hunts for alien worlds. While WD 1856 b is a likely planet-candidate, further confirmation using analysis and observation is still pending.

It’s even possible that it wasn’t the white dwarf star that pulled the planet in — maybe it was pushed by a third force that hasn’t been taken into account yet.

“At this point, we still have more theories than data points,” said another co-author of the study, Juliette Becker.

In a companion paper published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the team of researchers also proposed the possibility of rocky worlds having a higher chance of survival when a star dies — a fate that Earth will have to come to terms with in another 5 billion years from now.

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