Categories: Star Formation

A White-Hot Relationship

[/caption]

Two stars have been discovered locked in a mutually-destructive embrace, a relationship that will end with both losing their individual identities as they spiral increasingly closer, eventually becoming a single hot body that is destined to quickly fizzle out.

No, we’re not talking about the cover of a Hollywood tabloid, these are two white dwarf stars 1,140 light-years away in the constellation Leo, and they are the second such pair of their kind ever to be discovered.

Astronomers at the University of Warwick in the UK have identified a binary pair of white dwarf stars named CSS 41177 that circle each other closely in an eclipsing orbit. What’s particularly unique about this pair is that both stars seem to have been stripped down to their helium layers – a feature that points at an unusually destructive history for both.

White dwarfs typically form from larger stars that have burned through their hydrogen and helium, leaving behind hot, dense cores composed of carbon and oxygen – after going through a bloated red giant phase, that is. But when stars are very close to each other, such as in the case of binary pairs, the expanding hydrogen shell from the larger one undergoing its red giant phase is stripped away by its smaller companion, which absorbs the material. Without the compression and heat from the hydrogen layer the first star cannot fuse its helium into heavier elements and is left as a helium white dwarf.

When the time comes for the smaller star to expand into a red giant, its outer layers are likewise torn away by the first star. But the first star cannot use that hydrogen, and so both are left as helium white dwarfs. The unused hydrogen is ultimately lost to the system.

It’s a case of a destructive codependent relationship on a stellar scale.

The white dwarf stars in CSS 41177 will eventually merge together in about a billion years, gaining enough mass in the process to begin fusing their combined helium, thus becoming a single star called a hot subdwarf. This period could last another 100 million years.

This discovery was made using data gathered from the Liverpool Telescope in the Canary Islands and the Gemini Telescope on Hawaii. The paper was accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal and is entitled A deeply eclipsing detached double helium white dwarf binary. (Authors: S. G. Parsons, T. R. Marsh, B. T. Gaensicke, A. J. Drake, D. Koester.)

Read more on SpaceRef.com.

The image above was created by Andrew Taylor, a.k.a. digital_drew. He specializes in starry-night landscapes as seen from speculative planets orbiting familiar stars in our galaxy and was kind enough to provide me with this custom binary pair image. Check out his photostream for more!

Jason Major

A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

View Comments

  • "When the time comes for the smaller star to expand into a red giant, its outer layers are likewise torn away by the first star. But the first star cannot use that hydrogen, and so both are left as helium white dwarfs. The unused hydrogen is ultimately lost to the system."

    Surely, even if the hydrogen cannot be fused, it would still end up as an outer layer on the first star? How is the hydrogen supposed to get out of the system?

    • In reading this article I take this to mean the two stars exchange material. The red giant phase looses material to the other star due to its tidal force of gravity. So this process is about two partially filled glasses, pour some water from one to the other, then back again, corresponding to the red giant phase star as the glass being poured.

      A white dwarf can have fusion on its surface. This usually involves systems like the one described here. Hydrogen falls onto the white dwarf and builds up to a point where fusion can take place. This fusion is often transient or in bursts. If two white dwarfs merge the event will be violent, and the resulting hot subdwarf will likely have sufficient gravity to have fusion on its surface for some time.

      LC

Recent Posts

NASA releases new spooky space-themed posters about extreme places in the Universe

One of six new spooky posters from NASA's Galaxy of Horrors. Credit NASA-JPL/Caltech While ghouls…

4 hours ago

Weekly Space Hangout: October 28, 2020, Dr. Nathalie Cabrol, SETI Institute

https://youtu.be/bl0FZXqG2Iw This week we are pleased to welcome Dr. Natalie Cabrol, Director of the Carl…

11 hours ago

New Simulation Shows Exactly What’s Happening as Neutron Stars Merge

Neutron stars are the remnants of massive stars that explode as supernovae at the end…

13 hours ago

Room-temperature Superconductivity Achieved for the First Time, but There’s a Catch

One of the most interesting things about space exploration is how many technologies have an…

13 hours ago

The Youngest Stellar Disk Ever Seen, Just 500,000 Years Old

Unless you’re reading this in an aircraft or the International Space Station, then you’re currently…

14 hours ago

Why Does the Moon’s Ryder Crater Look This Way?

This may be one of the strangest craters you’ll ever see. Ryder crater is located…

15 hours ago