The comet-like object is polluting the atmosphere of a nearby white dwarf
In 1986, Halley’s Comet became the first comet ever to be studied in detail by astronomers. The ‘periodic’ comet returns to Earth’s skies almost every 75 years and will next appear in the night skies in year 2062.
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Now, astronomers have found another massive comet-like object floating near a white dwarf star. The object has a compositional makeup similar to Halley’s Comet, but it is 100,000 times more massive than the Halley’s and is filled with elements essential for life on Earth like carbon and nitrogen, as well as oxygen and hydrogen, the components of water. However, the comet is broken apart and showering the nearby star with its debris. In other words, comet-like material has been seen polluting the atmosphere of the white dwarf.
The findings points to the fact that our solar system's Kuiper Belt that lies beyound Neptune is not the only place in the universe where comet-like bodies orbit white dwarfs. These icy bodies are present in other planatery systems, too and it’s the first time, astronomers have spotted one such body around a nearby dwarf star. The discovery was made by using Hubble Space Telescope and W.M. Keck Observatory.
The white dwarf is approximately 200 light-years from Earth and is located in the constellation Boötes. First documented in 1974, the white dwarf locked in a wide binary system with a companion star separated by 2,000 times the distance that the Earth is from the sun.
The icy objects found in this region of space apparently survived the process of star’s evolution as it became a red giant and then turned into a small, dense white dwarf. White dwarf is the final evolutionary state of low or medium mass star. This type of stars expels most of its outer material, creating a planetary nebula.
Around 50 percent of white dwarfs are known to have building blocks of life in their atmosphere but it is the first time nitrogen has been discovered on a white dwarf and is one of only the few known examples of white dwarfs that are being polluted by infalling debris from rocky, asteroid-like objects.
“Nitrogen is a very important element for life as we know it,” said Siyi Xu from European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany, who led the team that made the discovery. “This particular object is quite rich in nitrogen, more so than any object observed in our solar system.”