Citizen scientist finds old white dwarf with dust rings, puzzling astronomers

white dwarf rings citizen scientist disk final 1
In this illustration, an asteroid (bottom left) breaks apart under the powerful gravity of LSPM J0207+3331, the oldest, coldest white dwarf known to be surrounded by a ring of dusty debris. Scientists think the system’s infrared signal is best explained by two distinct rings composed of dust supplied by crumbling asteroids. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Scott Wiessinger

A citizen scientist working with NASA’s Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project has made a remarkable discovery: the oldest known white dwarf star with multiple dust rings. This discovery calls into question conventional wisdom about how white dwarfs form.

The star is called LSPM J0207+3331, or J0207 for short, and is around three times older than other known white dwarf stars with disks. “This white dwarf is so old that whatever process is feeding material into its rings must operate on billion-year timescales,” John Debes, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and lead author of the academic paper, said in a NASA statement. “Most of the models scientists have created to explain rings around white dwarfs only work well up to around 100 million years, so this star is really challenging our assumptions of how planetary systems evolve.”

Only around one to four percent of white dwarfs have dust rings, which scientists believe are formed when dust from distant asteroids comes close to the star because of gravitational intersections with planets. As the asteroids approach the white dwarf, they are torn apart by its gravity and the debris forms a ring of dust which gradually spirals in towards the star. Usually, this dust becomes depleted over time, which is why older white dwarfs don’t typically have rings. But J0207 seems to be an anomaly, and astronomers are planning further observations to discover more about it.

As well as creating beautiful images of other planets, non-professional astronomers can get involved in NASA research through projects like Backyard Worlds which invite the public to search through astronomical data to look for new objects. This particular white dwarf was spotted by young German astronomy enthusiast Melina Thévenot who was actually searching for brown dwarfs at the time. She noticed one reading that seemed out of place, and on further inspection it turned out to be not a brown dwarf at all but a white dwarf with a disk. She passed her findings on to Backyard Worlds, who passed it on to Debes and colleagues who used the telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to investigate further. Thévenot said in a blog post that she was “very proud to be part of this discovery.”

The findings are published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Emerging Tech

A.I.-generated text is supercharging fake news. This is how we fight back

A new A.I. tool is reportedly able to spot passages of text written by algorithm. Here's why similar systems might prove essential in a world of fake news created by smart machines.
Emerging Tech

Take a dip in the Lagoon Nebula in first image from SPECULOOS instrument

The European Southern Observatory has released the first image collected by their new SPECULOOS instrument, and it's a stunning portrait of the Lagoon Nebula, a swirling cloud of dust and gas where new stars are born.
Emerging Tech

Cosmic dust bunnies: Scientists find unexpected ring around Mercury

A pair of scientists searching for a dust-free region near the Sun have made an unexpected discovery: a vast cosmic dust ring millions of miles wide around the tiny planet Mercury.
Emerging Tech

New Hubble image displays dazzling Messier 28 globular cluster

Messier 28 is a group of stars in the constellation of Sagittarius, located 18,000 light-years from our planet. Thousands of stars are packed tightly together in this sparkling image.
Emerging Tech

Opportunity’s final image is a haunting panorama of the Martian surface

The Opportunity mission to Mars may be no more, but the rover's legacy lives on. Now NASA has released the final image captured by Opportunity, and it's a stunning panorama of the Martian surface.
Emerging Tech

Robot assistants from Toyota and Panasonic gear up for the Tokyo Olympics

Japan plans to use the 2020 Olympics to showcase a range of its advanced technologies. Toyota and Panasonic are already getting in on the act, recently unveiling several robotic designs that they intend to deploy at the event.
Emerging Tech

Racing to catch a flight? Robot valet at French airport will park your car

Hate searching for parking at the airport when you need to catch a plane? Startup Stanley Robotics recently unveiled a new outdoor automated robotic valet system. Here's how it works.
Business

Bags with brains: Smart luggage and gadgets are making travel smoother

The bag you use to tote your stuff can affect the experience of any trip. In response, suitcases are wising up, and there are now options for smart luggage with scales, tracking, and more. Here are our favorite pieces.
Computing

At $99, Nvidia’s Jetson Nano minicomputer seeks to bring robotics to the masses

Nvidia announced a new A.I. computer, the Jetson Nano. This computer comes with an 128-core GPU that Nvidia claims can handle pretty much any A.I. framework you could imagine. At $99, it's an affordable way for A.I. newbies to get involved.
Computing

Nvidia’s A.I. Playground lets you edit photos, experience deep learning research

Nvidia is making it easier to access information on deep learning research. It has launched an online space with three demos for image editing, styling, as well as photorealistic image synthesis. 
Business

British Airways’ new Club Suite for business class comes with a door

British Airways is going after a bigger slice of the business class market with the imminent launch of the Club Suite. The plush seating option offers a more private space as well as an easier route to the bathroom.
Smart Home

Sony’s Aibo robot dog can now patrol your home for persons of interest

Sony released the all-new Aibo in the U.S. around nine months ago, and since then the robot dog has (hopefully) been melting owners' hearts with its cute looks and clever tricks. Now it has a new one up its sleeve.
Emerging Tech

Inflating smart pills could be a painless alternative to injections

Could an inflating pill containing hidden microneedles replace painful injections? The creators of the RaniPill robotic capsule think so — and they have the human trials to prove it.
Emerging Tech

The U.S. Army is building a giant VR battlefield to train soldiers virtually

Imagine if the U.S. Army was able to rehearse battlezone scenarios dozens, or even hundreds, or times before settling foot on actual terrain. Thanks to virtual reality, that's now a possibility.