In order to carry out a complete spectropolarimetric survey, astronomers from Armagh Observatory and the University of Western Ontario selected all the WDs from the Gaia catalogue in a volume within 20 parsecs of the Sun. About two thirds of this sample, or approximately 100 WDs, had not been observed before and hence there were no data available in the literature. Consequently, the team observed them using the ISIS spectrograph and polarimeter on the William Herschel Telescope (WHT), together with similiar instruments on other telescopes.
They found that magnetic fields are rare at the beginning of the life of a WD, when the star no longer produces energy in its interior, and starts its cooling phase. Therefore a magnetic field does not appear to be a characteristic of a WD since its "birth". Most frequently, it is either generated, or brought to the stellar surface during the WD's cooling phase.
They also found that the magnetic fields of WDs do not show obvious signs of Ohmic decay, again an indication that these fields are generated during the cooling phase, or at least continue to emerge at the stellar surface as the WD ages.
This picture is totally different from what is observed for instance in magnetic Ap and Bp stars of the upper main sequence, where it is found that not only are magnetic fields present as soon as the star reaches the zero-age main sequence, but also that the field strength quickly decreases with time. Magnetism in WDs therefore seems to be a totally different phenomenon than magnetism of Ap and Bp stars.
Not only does magnetic field frequency increase with WD age, but it is known that the frequency is correlated with stellar mass, and that fields appear more frequently after the star's carbon-oxygen core has started to crystallise.
A dynamo mechanism can explain the weakest fields among those observed in WDs, and recent work suggests that the same mechanism could be capable of producing fields stronger than originally predicted.
For comparison, the strength of the Earth's magnetic field, produced by a dynamo mechanism, is about one Gauss. A dynamo mechanism can explain fields up to 0.1 million Gauss strength, but in WDs fields up to several hundred million Gauss have been observed. Furthermore, a dynamo mechanism needs fast rotation, but this is not generally observed in WDs. Further theoretical and observational investigation is needed to distangle this situation.
Bagnulo, S. ; Landstreet, J. D. , 2021, "New insight into the magnetism of degenerate stars from the analysis of a volume limited sample of white dwarfs", MNRAS, accepted for publication. Paper: ADS.
Stefano Bagnulo (Armagh Observatory, UK)
Javier Méndez (ING PR Officer)
About the William Herschel Telescope
Based on observations made with the William Herschel Telescope (WHT) operated on the island of La Palma by the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (ING) in the Spanish Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC). The ING is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC-UKRI) of the United Kingdom, the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (NWO) of the Netherlands, and the IAC in Spain. IAC's contribution to ING is funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities.