Star with Rings
A citizen astronomer looking for Planet 9 found something that actually exists but still has professional astronomers scratching their heads and mouthing the words, “This changes everything.” It’s an ancient white dwarf star with rings like Saturn that is far older and colder than any other ringed white dwarf star, which may force astronomers to change their theories on how white dwarfs form, age and die. Will Planet 9 be forced out of hiding due to jealousy over the publicity this discovery is getting?
“This object was found by Melina Thévenot of Germany using the Backyard Worlds project. She originally thought it might be a cold brown dwarf, something the project is very interested in and has had a lot of success finding.”
In a press release by Arizona State University, (and in a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters), ASU astronomer Adam Schneider announced the discovery which he had verified as part of NASA’s Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project which was launched two years ago as a way to get free research assistance by using volunteer astronomers to sort through infrared data available online and look for anomalies. Citizen astronomer Thévenot was hoping for a cold brown dwarf (no Snow White jokes, please) because they’re rare and unusual objects that are too big to be a planet but too small for a star – the perfect key to fame when your project has no fortune.
“When Melina investigated further, she found that although the object had significant infrared brightness; it was not a nearby brown dwarf. The team looked at it together, and we determined it was likely a white dwarf with infrared excess.”
The ringed white dwarf (located 145 light-years away in the constellation Capricornus) still brought Melinda fame because the infrared excess is a sign the rings are warmer than normally seen around a white dwarf and highly unusual because of its advanced age — LSPM J0207+3331 (the dwarf’s official non-Disney name) is 3 billion years old, which is three times older than any other white dwarf with a ring or disk.
Is this a big deal? Schneider didn’t know because he’s a brown dwarf expert (who knew NASA astronomers were such specialists?) so he sent it to John Debes, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and a white dwarf expert. As such, he was gushing with astronomical excitement when he saw the data.
“This white dwarf is so old that whatever process is feeding material into its rings must operate on billion-year timescales. 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.”
But wait … there’s more! Debes looked at follow-up observations taken by the Keck II telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and discovered that the ring or disk around this old white dwarf was made of multiple components. Normally, as a ringed white dwarf dies, the particles in the ring fall to the surface of the old star and the ring eventually disappears. LSPM J0207+3331 is far too ancient to still have rings of any kind.
Put all of those anomalies together and Melina Thévenot gets a “this changes everything” merit badge and a laurel and hardy handshake. Believe it or not, Schneider says that’s enough incentive for Backyard Worlds: Planet 9’s estimated 150,000 volunteers to have discovered over 1,000 potential brown dwarfs in just two years.
What about Planet 9? Are these dedicated citizen astronomers being used by NASA for free research under the guise that it really wants them to find the elusive and yet-unproven Planet 9?
Melina Thévenot is probably back on her computer trying to prove them wrong.