Two Stars On A Death Spiral Set To Detonate As A Supernova

Two white dwarfs circle around one other, locked in a fatal tango. With an intimate orbit and a hefty combined mass, the pair is ultimately destined to collide, merge, and erupt in a titanic explosion: a Type Ia supernova.

Or so goes the theory behind the infamous “standard candles” of cosmology.

Now, in a paper published in today’s issue of Nature, a team of astronomers have announced observational support for such an arrangement – two massive white dwarf stars that appear to be on track for a very explosive demise.

The astronomers were originally studying variations in planetary nebulae, the glowing clouds of gas that red giant stars throw off as they fizzle into white dwarfs. One of their targets was the planetary nebula Henize 2-428, an oddly lopsided specimen that, the team believed, owed its shape to the existence of two central stars, rather than one. After observing the nebula with the ESO’s Very Large Telescope, the astronomers concluded that they were correct – Henize 2-428 did, in fact, have a binary star system at its heart.

This image of the unusual planetary nebula was obtained using ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. In the heart of this colourful nebula lies a unique object consisting of two white dwarf stars, each with a mass a little less than that of the Sun. These stars are expected to slowly draw closer to each other and merge in around 700 million years. This event will create a dazzling supernova of Type Ia and destroy both stars. Credit: ESO

“Further observations made with telescopes in the Canary Islands allowed us to determine the orbit of the two stars and deduce both the masses of the two stars and their separation,” said Romano Corradi, a member of the team.

And that is where things get juicy.

In fact, the two stars are whipping around each other once every 4.2 hours, implying a narrow separation that is shrinking with each orbit. Moreover, the system has a combined heft of 1.76 solar masses – larger, by any count, than the restrictive Chandrasekhar limit, the maximum ~1.4 solar masses that a white dwarf can withstand before it detonates. Based on the team’s calculations, Henize 2-428 is likely to be the site of a type Ia supernova within the next 700 million years.

“Until now, the formation of supernovae Type Ia by the merging of two white dwarfs was purely theoretical,” explained David Jones, another of the paper’s coauthors. “The pair of stars in Henize 2-428 is the real thing!”

Check out this simulation, courtesy of the ESO, for a closer look at the fate of the dynamic duo:


Astronomers should be able to use the stars of Henize 2-428 to test and refine their models of type Ia supernovae – essential tools that, as lead author Miguel Santander-García emphasized, “are widely used to measure astronomical distances and were key to the discovery that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating due to dark energy.” This system may also enhance scientists’ understanding of the precursors of other irregular planetary nebulae and supernova remnants.

The team’s work was published in the February 9 issue of Nature. A copy of the paper is available here.

Vanessa Janek

Vanessa earned her bachelor's degree in Astronomy and Physics in 2009 from Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Her credits in astronomy include observing and analyzing eclipsing binary star systems and taking a walk on the theory side as a NSF intern, investigating the expansion of the Universe by analyzing its traces in observations of type 1a supernovae. In her spare time she enjoys writing about astrophysics, cosmology, environmental science, biology, and medicine, making delicious vegetarian meals, taking adventures with her husband and/or Nikon D50, and saving the world. Vanessa is currently a science writer at Brown University.

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