Some Star Just Ripped Apart Halley's Comet's Brother

By Rae Paoletta on at

Here’s your daily reminder that the final frontier is ruthless: For the first time ever, scientists have spotted a comet-like object getting torn apart by a white dwarf star. Thankfully, this pugnacious little star — called WD 1425+540 — is located 170 lightyears away from Earth in the constellation Boötes, which may or may not be a piece of IKEA furniture.

No one expected to stumble across this cosmic catastrophe; scientists at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii discovered the scene while they were using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope simply to observe WD 1425+540's stellar atmosphere. But they quickly found evidence a comet-like object had wandered too close to the white dwarf, and was in the midst of getting ripped apart by the star’s gravity. While white dwarf stars have been known to rip apart asteroid-like objects, this is the first time one has been observed tearing up something icy and comet-like.

The team determined that this ill-fated object was actually very similar in composition to Halley’s Comet, which comes close to Earth once every 75 years. Both comets are rich in essential elements like carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen, although this new one was 100,000 times more massive than its famous relative. It also contained twice as much water, so its demise must have made quite a mess.

This cosmic oddity might be evidence of something larger. The researchers think there could be an entire belt of these comet-like objects in the vicinity of WD 1425+540, organized much like the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune. While it’s not definitive proof, it’s an idea that could warrant future analysis.

That said, RIP random comet thing. We hardly knew ye. [Hubble]