Circularization of tidal debris around white dwarfs: Implications for gas production and dust variability

Uri Malamud, Evgeni Grishin, Marc Brouwers

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White dwarf (WD) pollution is thought to arise from the tidal disruption of planetary bodies. The initial fragment stream is extremely eccentric, while observational evidence suggest that discs are circular or nearly so. Here, we propose a novel mechanism to bridge this gap and show that the fragments can rapidly circularize through dust or gas drag when they interact with a pre-existing compact disc. We assume that the tidal stream mainly consists of small cohesive fragments in the size range 10-1000 m, capable of resisting the WD tidal forces, whereas the compact discs span a wide mass range. We provide an analytical model, accompanied by N-body simulations, and find a large parameter space in fragment sizes and orbital separation that leads to full circularization. Partial circularization is possible for compact discs that are several orders of magnitudes less massive. We show that dust-induced circularization inherently produces gas as tidal fragments collisionally vapourize the pre-existing dust along their path. We show that ongoing gas production has a higher probability to occur during the early stages of tidal disruption events, resulting from the fact that smaller fragments are the first to circularize. Intermittent gas production however becomes more likely as the tidal stream matures. This could explain why only a small subset of systems with dusty compact discs also have an observed gaseous component. Additionally, the interaction yields fragment erosion by collisional shattering, sputtering, sublimation, and possibly ram pressure. Material scattered by the collisions might form a thin dusty halo that evolves through Poynting-Robertson drag, in compatibility with observed infrared variability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3806-3824
Number of pages19
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • planet-disc interactions
  • transients: Tidal disruption events
  • white dwarfs

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