Oct 11, 2013 12:06 PM EDT
Astrophysicists Discover Rocky, Water-Rich Planetary Body Outside Solar System for First Time
A rocky body surface and water-rich environment does not automatically lead to an inhabitable planet, but it was also not believed to exist outside our solar system.
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In the broken remnants of a white dwarf, astrophysicists from the Universities of Warwick and Cambridge discovered planetary body rich with water outside the solar system with a rocky surface.
Using the Hubble Telescope and the large Keck Telescope in Hawaii, the scientists found the object near the white dwarf GD 61. It is not the first time water has been detected outside the solar system, a plenty of gas giants can contain water. The discovery is significant because of the planetary body's rocky surface.
GD 61 was a star bigger than the sun, but some 200 millions years ago, it began to die and eventually became the white dwarf it is today. This event likely threw off the orbit of the watery minor planet, bringing it in for a much closer orbit. The gravitational pull was so strong, it ripped apart the surface of the minor planet.
"At this stage in its existence, all that remains of this rocky body is simply dust and debris that has been pulled into the orbit of its dying parent star," physics professor Boris Gänsicke, at the University of Warwick, said. "However this planetary graveyard swirling around the embers of its parent star is a rich source of information about its former life. In these remnants lie chemical clues, which point towards a previous existence as a water-rich terrestrial body."
For their study, published Friday in the journal Science, the researchers used ultraviolet spectroscopy data obtained with both telescopes.
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"The finding of water in a large asteroid means the building blocks of habitable planets existed - and maybe still exist - in the GD 61 system, and likely also around substantial number of similar parent stars," lead author Jay Farihi, from Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, said. "These water-rich building blocks, and the terrestrial planets they build, may in fact be common - a system cannot create things as big as asteroids and avoid building planets, and GD 61 had the ingredients to deliver lots of water to their surface."