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Something No Human Has Seen Before': Astronomers Announce Major Discovery 570 Light-Years Away

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"We now have a 'smoking gun.'"

Astronomers announced Wednesday that they have spotted a real-life "death star" destroying a distant solar system that is akin to something right out of "Star Wars."

"This is something no human has seen before," lead author Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said. "We're watching a solar system get destroyed."

[sharequote align="center"]"This is something no human has seen before."[/sharequote]

Scientists said evidence of a large rocky object disintegrating in a death spiral around a white dwarf star first came from NASA's Kepler K2 mission. Additional observations were made using ground-based instruments.

Image source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

The phenomenon is occurring approximately 570 light-years away in the Virgo constellation, astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center said.

The finding provides scientists with an explanation as to why some white dwarf stars contain heavier metal elements.

When a star reaches the end of its lifespan, it morphs into a white dwarf by way of shedding its outer layers until only its core remains. Scientists had long wondered why certain white dwarfs had "pollution" of metals.

"It's like panning for gold - the heavy stuff sinks to the bottom. These metals should sink into the white dwarf's interior where we can't see them," Harvard co-author John Johnson explained.

With the findings, scientists have confirmed a long-standing theory which posited that the "polluted" white dwarfs contained metal elements after consuming rocky objects.

"We now have a 'smoking gun' linking white dwarf pollution to the destruction of rocky planets," Vanderburg said.

The findings are set to be published in the Oct. 22 issue of Nature.

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