WR 104 Won’t Kill Us After All

by Ian O'Neill on January 7, 2009

WR 104, not so scary (Keck)

WR 104, not so scary (Keck)

Early last year, concern was growing for a Wolf-Rayet star named WR 104 that appeared to be aiming right at Earth (see Looking Down the Barrel of A Gamma Ray Burst). A Wolf-Rayet star is a highly unstable star coming to the end of its life, possibly culminating in a powerful, planet-killing gamma-ray burst (GRB). GRBs are collimated beams of high energy gamma-rays, projected from the poles of a collapsing Wolf-Rayet star. It was little wonder that we were concerned when a dying Wolf-Rayet star was found to be pointing right at us! Today, at the AAS in Long Beach, one scientist working at the Keck Telescope has taken a keen interest in WR 104 and shared new findings that show our Solar System may not be bathed in deadly gamma-rays after all…

Wolf-Rayet stars are evolved massive stars undergoing a suicidal and violent death. They are very hot (up to 50,000K) and losing mass very quickly, generating powerful stellar winds (at velocities of 2000 km/s). WR 104 was imaged using the Keck Telescope in Hawaii last March, and images of the pinwheel spiral star system appeared to show that we were “looking down a rifle barrel”.

So what is causing this spiral structure around WR 104? The star has a binary O-type star partner, so as WD 104 sheds its mass, the stellar winds spiral outward. As we are seeing the full spiral from Earth, it was therefore reasonable to assume the binary system was facing right toward us. As WR 104 probably has its pole pointing 90° from the ecliptic plane, any future GRB could be directed straight at us.

WR 104 is a fascinating object that got a lot of press last spring,” Dr Grant Hill said during the AAS meeting today (Jan 7th). “Since the object is in our galaxy, it could be devastating [for Earth]”

Hill therefore decided to confirm previous Keck observations with spectroscopic data to find out if there could be the possibility of an Earth-directed GRB. His work confirms the system is a binary pair, orbiting each other at an 8 month period. Hill also confirmed the presence of a shock front between the stellar winds of WD 104 and O-type partner. And there is some very good news for Earth. It would appear the original Keck imagry may not have been as straight-forward as it seemed. Spectroscopic emission lines from the binary pair strongly suggest the system is in fact inclined 30°-40° (possibly as much as 45°) away from us.

So, Earth doesn’t appear to be in the firing line of WR 104 after all…


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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

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