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Astronomers discover rare ‘retired’ star, mysterious planet

It may be a glimpse of our future.

The European Space Agency’s Herschel space telescope has reportedly captured a stunning image of a dying star, similar to what our own sun will end up appearing like billions of years from now.

The star, dubbed Kappa Coronae Borealis (κ CrB), is a bit larger than our own sun, according to astronomers. Kappa Coronae Borealis weighs in at 1.5 solar masses and has recently entered its subgiant phase, defined as the point when a star begins to grow in size, eventually engulfing nearby planets and asteroids.  Stars similar in size to the sun usually end as a red giant before either exploding in a supernova or cooling down to a white or brown dwarf.

The image show Kappa Coronae Borealis steadily burning through its supply of hydrogen over the course of nearly 2.5 billion years, and astronomers say the image paints a portrait of a star in its waning years. While the star will continue burning for hundreds of thousands of years, astronomers say it is extremely rare to capture an image of a dying star with a debris disc and one or more planets

The star system, according to astronomers, is surrounded by a dusty debris field, which made observing the star nearly impossible. Relying on the Herschel space telescope, astronomers were able to peer through the debris field and measure the star’s far-infrared wavelengths. In doing so, astronomers were able to catalogue the debris field and identify the star’s properties.

The discovery is extremely rare as astronomers have long thought that debris fields are cleared during the early years of star formation. Astronomers say our own solar system likely grew out of a similar debris field in the early years of formation as the sun continued to gain strength.  Astronomers now suspect that such debris fields are actively shaped by the planets inhabiting the systems and that planetary bodies could have a much larger impact on how solar systems are formed from the beginning.

While the star itself will provide astronomers with plenty to examine, ESA scientists noted that they are extremely interested in attempting to identify a mysterious third body, which could be either a brown dwarf or a gas giant exoplanet. Data collected by ground based observatories could provide additional evidence, although astronomers conceded that it may be awhile before we know.

The report is detailed in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.