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…