Scientists at Carnegie were astonished after finding evidence of a polluted white dwarf in its archives in the early 20th century.
Scientists have stumbled upon an astronomical glass plate dating all the way back to 1917 that shows an observer caught sight of an exoplanet and a white dwarf star — decades before the first confirmed exoplanet.
The astronomical glass plate was found in the Carnegie Observatories Collection, and it presents the earliest recorded evidence of a “polluted” white dwarf system, according to a Carnegie statement.
Carnegie Observatories’ director John Mulchaey called it an “incredible” find, and said it was all the more exciting because the observation was made by Walter Adams, a prominent astronomer in the organization.
Adams had recorded a spectrum that showed a “chemical fingerprint” of the star, which is also called van Maanen’s star, showing heavier elements like calcium, magnesium, and iron that should not be there because of how much they weigh. The elements suggest lots of debris in the system are continuing to fall into the star, creating the “polluted” white dwarf.
Considering such systems have only been known about for the last 12 years, that’s a pretty amazing discovery.
“You can never predict what treasure might be hiding in your own basement,” the statement reads. “We didn’t know it a year ago, but it turns out that a 1917 image on an astronomical glass plate from our Carnegie Observatories’ collection shows the first-ever evidence of a planetary system beyond our own Sun. This unexpected find was recognized in the process of researching an article about planetary systems surrounding white dwarf stars in New Astronomy Reviews.”
Said Mulchaey: “Carnegie has one of the world’s largest collections of astronomical plates with an archive that includes about 250,000 plates from three different observatories–Mount Wilson, Palomar, and Las Campanas. We have a ton of history sitting in our basement and who knows what other finds we might unearth in the future?”