A Star Became 1,000 Times Brighter, and Now Astronomers Know Why

Artist’s impression of one of the two stars in the FU Orionis binary system, surrounded by an accreting disk of material. What has caused this star — and others like it — to dramatically brighten? [NASA/JPL-Caltech]
Artist’s impression of one of the two stars in the FU Orionis binary system, surrounded by an accreting disk of material. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomers were surprised in 1937 when a star in a binary pair suddenly brightened by 1,000 times. The pair is called FU Orionis (FU Ori), and it’s in the constellation Orion. The sudden and extreme variability of one of the stars has resisted a complete explanation, and since then, FU Orionis has become the name for other stars that exhibit similar powerful variability.

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Three of the Oldest Stars in the Universe Found Circling the Milky Way

MIT astronomers discovered three of the oldest stars in the universe, and they live in our own galactic neighborhood. The stars are in the Milky Way’s “halo” — the cloud of stars that envelopes the main galactic disk — and they appear to have formed between 12 and 13 billion years ago, when the very first galaxies were taking shape. Credits:Image: Serge Brunier; NASA

Mention the Milky Way and most people will visualise a great big spiral galaxy billions of years old. It’s thought to be a galaxy that took shape billions of years after the Big Bang. Studies by astronomers have revealed that there are the echo’s of an earlier time around us. A team of astronomers from MIT have found three ancient stars orbiting the Milky Way’s halo. The team think these stars formed when the Universe was around a billion years old and that they were once part of a smaller galaxy that was consumed by the Milky Way. 

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Binary Stars Form in the Same Nebula But Aren’t Identical. Now We Know Why.

This artist’s impression illustrates a binary pair of giant stars. Despite being born from the same molecular cloud, astronomers often detect differences in binary stars’ chemical compositions and planetary systems. Image Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva (Spaceengine)/M. Zamani

It stands to reason that stars formed from the same cloud of material will have the same metallicity. That fact underpins some avenues of astronomical research, like the search for the Sun’s siblings. But for some binary stars, it’s not always true. Their composition can be different despite forming from the same reservoir of material, and the difference extends to their planetary systems.

New research shows that the differences can be traced back to their earliest stages of formation.

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Astronomers Think They’ve Found Examples of the First Stars in the Universe

An artist's illustration of some of the Universe's first stars. Called Population 3 stars, they formed a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Image Credit: By NASA/WMAP Science Team - https://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/starsgalaxies/fuse_fossil_galaxies.html (image link), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1582286

When the first stars in the Universe formed, the only material available was primordial hydrogen and helium from the Big Bang. Astronomers call these original stars Population Three stars, and they were extremely massive, luminous, and hot stars. They’re gone now, and in fact, their existence is hypothetical.

But if they did exist, they should’ve left their fingerprints on nearby gas, and astrophysicists are looking for it.

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See the Southern Ring Nebula in 3D

The Southern Ring Nebula, or NGC 3132, was one of the first objects observed by the James Webb Space Telescope. Astronomers are digging more deeply into the nebula with additional observatories to expand their understanding of the structure. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

Planetary nebula are some of nature’s most stunning visual displays. The name is confusing since they’re the remains of stars, not planets. But that doesn’t detract from their status as objects of captivating beauty and intense scientific study.

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The Milky Way’s Most Massive Stellar Black Hole is Only 2,000 Light Years Away

This image shows the locations of the first three black holes discovered by ESA's Gaia mission in the Milky Way. Gaia Black Hole 1 (BH1) is located just 1560 light-years away from us in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus; Gaia BH2 is 3800 light-years away in the constellation Centaurus; Gaia BH3 is in the constellation Aquila, at a distance of 1926 light-years from Earth. In galactic terms, these black holes reside in our cosmic backyard. Image Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC. Licence CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Astronomers have found the largest stellar mass black hole in the Milky Way so far. At 33 solar masses, it dwarfs the previous record-holder, Cygnus X-1, which has only 21 solar masses. Most stellar mass black holes have about 10 solar masses, making the new one—Gaia BH3—a true giant.

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Roman Will Learn the Ages of Hundreds of Thousands of Stars

By carefully observing star spots, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will determine stellar ages. It needs some help from AI though. Image Credit: NASA and STScI

Astronomers routinely provide the ages of the stars they study. But the methods of measuring ages aren’t 100% accurate. Measuring the ages of distant stars is a difficult task.

The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope should make some progress.

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The Stellar Demolition Derby in the Centre of the Galaxy

This illustration shows stars orbiting close to the Milky Way's central supermassive black hole. The black hole accelerates stars nearby and sends them crashing into one another. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Spaceengine.org

The region near the Milky Way’s centre is dominated by the supermassive black hole that resides there. Sagittarius A*’s overwhelming gravity creates a chaotic region where tightly packed, high-speed stars crash into one another like cars in a demolition derby.

These collisions and glancing blows change the stars forever. Some become strange, stripped-down, low-mass stars, while others gain new life.

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The Large Magellanic Cloud isn’t Very Metal

This image shows the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds in the sky over the ESO's Paranal Observatory and the four telescopes of the VLT. Image Credit: By ESO/J. Colosimo - http://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1511a/, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38973313

The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is the Milky Way’s most massive satellite galaxy. Because it’s so easily observed, astronomers have studied it intently. They’re interested in how star formation in the LMC might have been different than in the Milky Way.

A team of researchers zeroed in on the LMC’s most metal-deficient stars to find out how different.

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In a Distant Solar System, the JWST Sees the End of Planet Formation

This artist's illustration shows what gas leaving a planet-forming disk might look like around the T Tauri star T. Cha. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser CC BY

Every time a star forms, it represents an explosion of possibilities. Not for the star itself; its fate is governed by its mass. The possibilities it signifies are in the planets that form around it. Will some be rocky? Will they be in the habitable zone? Will there be life on any of the planets one day?

There’s a point in every solar system’s development when it can no longer form planets. No more planets can form because there’s no more gas and dust available, and the expanding planetary possibilities are truncated. But the total mass of a solar system’s planets never adds up to the total mass of gas and dust available around the young star.

What happens to the mass, and why can’t more planets form?

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