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Theory suggests source of white dwarf pollution … and ominous fate for Earth

Hot, young, white dwarfs – the super-dense remains of sunlike stars – have atmospheres made essentially of pure hydrogen or pure helium. But these stars’ atmospheres are contaminated by other elements, too – for example, carbon, silicon and iron – known to astronomers as metals. A decades-old space mystery is how the metals came to be in white dwarf atmospheres. And now an international team of astronomers led by Professor Martin Barstow of the University of Leicester in the U.K. say they have solved the mystery. Their solution points to an ominous fate for planet Earth. Professor Barstow said in a press release:

The mystery of the composition of these stars is a problem we have been trying to solve for more than 20 years. It is exciting to realize that they are swallowing up the leftovers from planetary systems, perhaps like our own.

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