Debris was part of an asteroid that held the ingredients for habitable planets
© Mark A. Garlick, space-art.co.uk, Univ. of Warwick and Univ. of Cambridge
For the first time, astronomers have discovered the watery building blocks of Earthlike planets whirling around a star outside our solar system.
The star, GD 61, is a white dwarf: a dying star with a gravitational pull strong enough to suck in surrounding asteroids and planets. As GD 61 gobbles up orbiting bodies, it shreds them into a dusty cloud of rubble, says astronomer Jay Farihi of the University of Cambridge.
Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, Farihi and colleagues analyzed the cloud’s ingredients. They found rock-forming elements such as iron and magnesium, but also a wealth of oxygen. Only one possibility can explain the oxygen, Farihi says: “It has to be water.”
The water and rocky material were part of a large asteroid before GD 61 ripped it to pieces, the researchers report in the Oct. 11 Science.
Just a few waterlogged asteroids smashing into a rocky planet could deliver enough water to fill oceans and lakes. The findings suggest that habitable planets may have once orbited GD 61, a star just 150 light-years away in the constellation Perseus.
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