Alkali metals in white dwarf atmospheres as tracers of ancient planetary crustsOPEN ACCESS 

Mark A. Hollands, Pier-Emmanuel Tremblay, Boris T. Gänsicke, Detlev Koester & Nicola Pietro Gentile-Fusillo

Nature Astronomy (2021)
Published: 11 February 2021



“White dwarfs that accrete the debris of tidally disrupted asteroids provide the opportunity to measure the bulk composition of the building blocks, or fragments, of exoplanets. This technique has established a diversity of compositions comparable to what is observed in the Solar System, suggesting that the formation of rocky planets is a generic process. The relative abundances of lithophile and siderophile elements within the planetary debris can be used to investigate whether exoplanets undergo differentiation, yet the composition studies carried out so far lack unambiguous tracers of planetary crusts. Here we report the detection of lithium in the atmospheres of four cool (<5,000 K) and old (cooling ages of 5–10 Gyr ago) metal-polluted white dwarfs, of which one also displays photospheric potassium. The relative abundances of these two elements with respect to sodium and calcium strongly suggest that all four white dwarfs have accreted fragments of planetary crusts. We detect an infrared excess in one of the systems, indicating that accretion from a circumstellar debris disk is ongoing. The main-sequence progenitor mass of this star was 4.8 ± 0.2 M⊙, demonstrating that rocky, differentiated planets may form around short-lived B-type stars.”