Space.com (April 20, 2009)
"At least one in every 100 white dwarf stars may be orbited by asteroids and rocky planets, new observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope suggest. The finding could mean that these now dead stars once hosted solar systems similar to our own.
"Also, the work could help scientists determine whether other rocky, Earth-like planets are orbiting around other stars.
"White dwarf stars are the compact, hot remnants left behind when stars like our own sun reach the end of their lives.
"As a middleweight star like our sun ages, it eventually swells into a red giant phase. Stars of this mass aren't heavy enough to end their lives in the spectacular explosions known as supernovas; instead, they gradually expel their atmospheres until they shrivel into the hot, dense dead stars called white dwarfs...."
The article is a little more technical than what might show up in a Sunday supplement, but I think it's intended for a general audience.
Based on what a space-based telescope found, between 1 and 3 percent of white dwarfs have more heavy elements in their atmosphere than was expected. One of the less unlikely explanations is that there's an asteroid belt close to the star, and that dust from the asteroids accounts for the unexpected elements.
This suggests that there may be rocky planets - or what's left of them - orbiting these white dwarfs.
I'm a Science Fiction Fan From Way BackIn my youth (and maybe now), the standard science fiction author's way to indicate an old planet was to give it a bloated red sun. Fair enough: but I think there's author fuel in the dusty white dwarfs, too.
Imagine the scene: A stark landscape of gray rock under a black star-flecked sky. One star, near the horizon, glares like a welding arc. That star, the sun of this world, casts strange shadows behind a flowing tangle of metal beams.
"Many a hearth upon our dark globe sighs after many a vanish'd face, Many a planet by many a sun may roll with a dust of a vanish'd race...." Vastness - Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from Bartelby.net