August 2023 • 2023Natur.620...61C
Abstract • White dwarfs, the extremely dense remnants left behind by most stars after their death, are characterized by a mass comparable to that of the Sun compressed into the size of an Earth-like planet. In the resulting strong gravity, heavy elements sink towards the centre and the upper layer of the atmosphere contains only the lightest element present, usually hydrogen or helium1,2. Several mechanisms compete with gravitational settling to change a white dwarf's surface composition as it cools3, and the fraction of white dwarfs with helium atmospheres is known to increase by a factor of about 2.5 below a temperature of about 30,000 kelvin4-8; therefore, some white dwarfs that appear to have hydrogen-dominated atmospheres above 30,000 kelvin are bound to transition to be helium-dominated as they cool below it. Here we report observations of ZTF J203349.8+322901.1, a transitioning white dwarf with two faces: one side of its atmosphere is dominated by hydrogen and the other one by helium. This peculiar nature is probably caused by the presence of a small magnetic field, which creates an inhomogeneity in temperature, pressure or mixing strength over the surface9-11. ZTF J203349.8+322901.1 might be the most extreme member of a class of magnetic, transitioning white dwarfs—together with GD 323 (ref. 12), a white dwarf that shows similar but much more subtle variations. This class of white dwarfs could help shed light on the physical mechanisms behind the spectral evolution of white dwarfs.