In this artist’s conception, a small planet or planetesimal vaporizes as it orbits close to a white dwarf star. The detection of several of these disintegrating planets around a variety of stars has led some astronomers to propose intensive study of their ensuing dust clouds as a surprising new way to learn about the interiors of exoplanet. (NASA)
One of the seemingly quixotic goals of exoplanet scientists is to understand the chemical and geo-chemical compositions of the interiors of the distant planets they are finding. Learning whether a planet is largely made up of silicon or magnesium or iron-based compounds is essential to some day determining how and where specific exoplanets were formed in their solar systems, which ones might have the compounds and minerals believed to be necessary for life, and ultimately which might actually be hosting life.
Studying exoplanet interiors is a daunting challenge for sure, maybe even more difficult in principle than understanding the compositions of exoplanet atmospheres. After all, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the make-up of planet interiors in our own solar system.
An intriguing pathway, however, has been proposed based on the recent discovery of exoplanets in the process of being ...