All posts by Eloise McLennan

Asteroid’s destructive transition into glowing ring system captured in unprecedented images

The University of Warwick has released the first images of an asteroid being ripped apart by a dead star and forming a glowing debris ring.

The researchers, led by Christopher Manser of the University of Warwick’s Astrophysics Group, observed a dark red glow caused by gas produced by collisions among the debris within the ring, and illuminated by ultraviolet rays from the star. The group then turned this into the image of the ring.

“The diameter of the gap inside of the debris ring is 700,000km; approximately half the size of the Sun and the same space could fit both Saturn and its rings, which are only around 270,000km across,” said Manser.

“At the same time, the white dwarf is seven times smaller than Saturn but weighs 2,500 times more.”

A to-scale image of SDSS1228+1040 next to Saturn

A to-scale image of SDSS1228+1040 and its debris ring next to Saturn.

Although debris rings have been identified at a number of other white dwarfs, the researchers claim the imaging of SDSS1228+1040 gives an unprecedented insight into the structure of these systems.

“We knew about these debris disks around white dwarfs for over twenty years, but have only now been able to obtain the first image of one of these disks.”

The image was acquired using Doppler tomography, similar to computed tomography (CT), which is routinely used in hospitals. Both methods take scans from a variety of angles that are then combined in a computer into an image.

An image of the debris disk around SDSS1228+1040, which was formed using observations made over a period of 12 years. Images courtesy of the University of Warwick.

An image of the debris disk around SDSS1228+1040, which was formed using observations made over a period of 12 years. Images courtesy of the University of Warwick.

“The image we get from the processed data shows us that these systems are truly disc-like, and reveal many structures that we cannot detect in a single snapshot. The image shows a spiral-like structure which we think is related to collisions between dust grains in the debris disc,” said Manser.

The researchers claim that systems such as SDSS1228+1040 are a glimpse at the future of our own solar system once the Sun runs out of fuel.

“When we discovered this debris disk orbiting the white dwarf SDSS1228+1040 back in 2006, we thought we saw some signs of an asymmetric shape,” said Professor Boris Gänsicke of the University of Warwick’s Astrophysics Group.

“However, we could not have imagined the exquisite details that are now visible in this image constructed from twelve years of data – it was definitely worth the wait.”

The research is published today in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society under the title Doppler-imaging of the planetary debris disc at the white dwarf SDSS J122859.93+104032.9, and can be read here.