Limestone world gobbled by planet-eating white dwarf

Shower of carbon crumbs points to existence of puzzling exoplanet

White Cliffs of Dover

An exoplanet torn apart by its dead sun might have been slathered in calcium carbonate, a mineral also found in the White Cliffs of Dover (pictured).

Immanuel Giel/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

SAN DIEGO — A remote planet — the first with hints of a limestone shell — has been shredded by its dead sun, a new study suggests.

A generous heaping of carbon is raining down on a white dwarf, the exposed core of a dead star, astrophysicist Carl Melis of the University of California, San Diego said June 13 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. The carbon — along with a dash of other elements such as calcium, silicon and iron — is probably all that remains of a rocky planet, torn apart by its dying sun’s gravity. Many other white dwarfs show similar signs of planetary cannibalism (SN Online: 10/21/15), but none are as flooded with carbon atoms as this one.  

A planet slathered in calcium carbonate, a mineral found in limestone, could explain the shower of carbon as well as the relative amounts of other elements, said Melis. He and Patrick Dufour, an astrophysicist at the University of Montreal, estimate that calcium carbonate could have made up to 9 percent of the doomed world’s mass.

While a limestone-encrusted world is a first, it’s not shocking, says Melis. The recipe for calcium carbonate is just carbon and calcium in the presence of water. “If you have those conditions, it’s going to form,” he says.

“The real interesting thing is the carbon,” Melis adds. Carbon needs to be frozen — most likely as carbon dioxide — to be incorporated into a forming planet. But CO2 freezes far from a star, beyond where researchers suspect rocky planets are assembled. A limestone planet could have formed in an unexpected place and later wandered in while somehow retaining its carbon stores in the warm environs closer to its sun. Or the carbon might have been delivered to the world after it formed. But, Melis says, it’s not clear how either would happen. 

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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