Planetary nebulae are a fascinating astronomical phenomena, even if the name is a bit misleading. Rather than being associated with planets, these glowing shells of gas and dust are formed when stars enter the final phases of their lifespan and throw off their outer layers. In many cases, this process and the subsequent structure of the nebula is the result of the star interacting with a nearby companion star.
Recently, while examining the planetary nebula M3-1, an international team of astronomers noted something rather interesting. After observing the nebula’s central star, which is actually a binary system, they noticed that the pair had an incredibly short orbital period – i.e. the stars orbit each other once every 3 hours and 5 minutes. Based on this behavior, the pair are likely to merge and trigger a nova explosion.
Eclipsing binary star systems are relatively common in our Universe. To the casual observer, these systems look like a single star, but are actually composed of two stars orbiting closely together. The study of these systems offers astronomers an opportunity to directly measure the fundamental properties (i.e. the masses and radii) of these systems respective stellar components.
Recently, a team of Brazilian astronomers observed a rare sight in the Milky Way – an eclipsing binary composed of a white dwarf and a low-mass brown dwarf. Even more unusual was the fact that the white dwarf’s life cycle appeared to have been prematurely cut short by its brown dwarf companion, which caused its early death by slowly siphoning off material and “starving” it to death.
For the sake of their study, the team conducted observations of a binary star system between 2005 and 2013 using the Pico dos Dias Observatory in Brazil. This data was then combined with information from the William Herschel Telescope, which is located in the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on the island of La Palma. This system, known as of HS 2231+2441, consists of a white dwarf star and a brown dwarf companion.
White dwarfs, which are the final stage of intermediate or low-mass stars, are essentially what is left after a star has exhausted its hydrogen and helium fuel and blown off its outer layers. A brown dwarf, on the other hand, is a substellar object that has a mass which places it between that of a star and a planet. Finding a binary system consisting of both objects together in the same system is something astronomers don’t see everyday.
As Leonardo Andrade de Almeida explained in a FAPESP press release, “This type of low-mass binary is relatively rare. Only a few dozen have been observed to date.”
This particular binary pair consists of a white dwarf that is between twenty to thirty percent the Sun’s mass – 28,500 K (28,227 °C; 50,840 °F) – while the brown dwarf is roughly 34-36 times that of Jupiter. This makes HS 2231+2441 the least massive eclipsing binary system studied to date.
In the past, the primary (the white dwarf) was a normal star that evolved faster than its companion since it was more massive. Once it exhausted its hydrogen fuel, its formed a helium-burning core. At this point, the star was on its way to becoming a red giant, which is what happens when Sun-like stars exit their main sequence phase. This would have been characterized by a massive expansion, with its diameter exceeding 150 million km (93.2 million mi).
At this point, Almeida and his colleagues concluded that it began interacting gravitationally with its secondary (the brown dwarf). Meanwhile, the brown dwarf began to be attracted and engulfed by the primary’s atmosphere (i.e. its envelop), which caused it it lose orbital angular momentum. Eventually, the powerful force of attraction exceeded the gravitational force keeping the envelop anchored to its star.
Once this happened, the primary star’s outer layers began to be stripped away, exposing its helium core and sending massive amounts of matter to the brown dwarf. Because of this loss of mass, the remnant effectively died, becoming a white dwarf. The brown dwarf then began orbiting its white dwarf primary with a short orbital period of just three hours. As Almeida explained:
“This transfer of mass from the more massive star, the primary object, to its companion, which is the secondary object, was extremely violent and unstable, and it lasted a short time… The secondary object, which is now a brown dwarf, must also have acquired some matter when it shared its envelope with the primary object, but not enough to become a new star.”
This situation is similar to what astronomers noticed this past summer while studying the binary star system known as WD 1202-024. Here too, a brown dwarf companion was discovered orbiting a white dwarf primary. What’s more, the team responsible for the discovery indicated that the brown dwarf was likely pulled closer to the white dwarf once it entered its Red Giant Branch (RGB) phase.
At this point, the brown dwarf stripped the primary of its atmosphere, exposing the white dwarf remnant core. Similarly, the interaction of the primary with a brown dwarf companion caused premature stellar death. The fact that two such discoveries have happened within a short period of time is quite fortuitous. Considering the age of the Universe (which is roughly 13.8 billion years old), dead objects can only be formed in binary systems.
In the Milky Way alone, about 50% of low-mass stars exist as part of a binary system while high mass stars exist almost exclusively in binary pairs. In these cases, roughly three-quarters will interact in some way with a companion – exchanging mass, accelerating their rotations, and eventually en merging.
As Almeida indicated, the study of this binary system and those like it could seriously help astronomers understand how hot, compact objects like white dwarfs are formed. “Binary systems offer a direct way of measuring the main parameter of a star, which is its mass,” he said. “That’s why binary systems are crucial to our understanding of the life cycle of stars.”
It has only been in recent years that low-mass white dwarf stars were discovered. Finding binary systems where they coexist with brown dwarfs – essentially, failed stars – is another rarity. But with every new discovery, the opportunities to study the range of possibilities in our Universe increases.
Stellar collisions are an amazingly rare thing. According to our best estimates, such events only occur in our galaxy (within globular clusters) once every 10,000 years. It’s only been recently, thanks to ongoing improvements in instrumentation and technology, that astronomers have been able to observe such mergers taking place. As of yet, no one has ever witnessed this phenomena in action – but that may be about to change!
According to study from a team of researchers from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a binary star system that will likely merge and explode in 2022. This is an historic find, since it will allow astronomers to witness a stellar merger and explosion for the first time in history. What’s more, they claim, this explosion will be visible with the naked-eye to observers here on Earth.
This binary star system, which is known as KIC 9832227, is one that Prof. Molnar and his colleagues – which includes students from the Apache Point Observatory and the University of Wyoming – have been monitoring since 2013. His interest in the star was piqued during a conference in 2013 when Karen Kinemuchi (an astronomers with the Apache Point Observatory) presented findings about brightness changes in the star.
This led to questions about the nature of this star system – specifically, whether it was a pulsar or a binary pair. After conducting their own observations using the Calvin observatory, Prof. Molnar and his colleagues concluded that the star was a contact binary – a class of binary star where the two stars are close enough to share an atmosphere. This brought to mind similar research in the past about another binary star system known as V1309 Scorpii.
This binary pair also had a shared atmosphere; and over time, their orbital period kept decreasing until (in 2008) they unexpectedly collided and exploded. Believing that KIC 9832227 would undergo a similar fate, they began conducting tests to see if the star system was exhibiting the same behavior. The first step was to make spectroscopic observations to see if their observations could be explained by the presence of a companion star.
As Cara Alexander, a Calvin College student and one of the co-authors on the team’s research paper, explained in a college press release:
“We had to rule out the possibility of a third star. That would have been a pedestrian, boring explanation. I was processing data from two telescopes and obtained images that showed a signature of our star and no sign of a third star. Then we knew we were looking at the right thing. It took most of the summer to analyze the data, but it was so exciting. To be a part of this research, I don’t know any other place where I would get an opportunity like that; Calvin is an amazing place.”
The next step was to measure the pair’s orbital period, to see it was in fact getting shorter over time – which would indicate that the stars were moving closer to each other. By 2015, Prof. Molnar and his team determined that the stars would eventually collide, resulting in a kind of stellar explosion known as a “Red Nova”. Initially, they estimated this would take place between 2018 and 2020, but have since placed the date at 2022.
In addition, they predict that the burst of light it will cause will be bright enough to be seen from Earth. The star will be visible as part of the constellation Cygnus, and it appear as an addition star in the familiar Northern Cross star pattern (see above). This is an historic case, since no astronomer has ever been able to accurately predict when and where a stellar collision would take place in the past.
What’s more, this discovery is immensely significant because it represents a break with the traditional discovery process. Not only have small research institutions and universities not been the ones to take the lead on these sorts of discoveries in the past, but student-and-teacher teams have also not been the ones who got to make them. As Molnar explained it:
“Most big scientific projects are done in enormous groups with thousands of people and billions of dollars. This project is just the opposite. It’s been done using a small telescope, with one professor and a few students looking for something that is not likely. Nobody has ever predicted a nova explosion before. Why pay someone to do something that almost certainly won’t succeed? It’s a high-risk proposal. But at Calvin it’s only my risk, and I can use my work on interesting, open-ended questions to bring extra excitement into my classroom. Some projects still have an advantage when you don’t have as much time or money.”
Over the course of the next year, Molnar and his colleagues will be monitoring KIC 9832227 carefully, and in multiple wavelengths. This will be done with the help of the NROA’s Very Large Array (VLA), NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility at Mauna Kea, and the ESA’s XMM-Newton spacecraft. These observatories will study the star’s radio, infrared and X-ray emissions, respectively.
Molnar also expects that amateur astronomers will be able to monitor the pair’s orbital timing and variations in brightness. And if he and his team’s predictions are correct, every student and stargazer in the northern hemisphere – not to mention people who just happen to be out for a walk – will be privy to the amazing light show. This is sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, so stay tuned for more information!
Interestingly enough, this historic discovery is also the subject of a documentary film. Titled “Luminous“, the documentary – which is directed by Sam Smartt, a Calvin professor of communication arts and sciences – chronicles the process that led Prof. Molnar and his team to make this unprecedented discovery. The documentary will also include footage of the Red Nova as it happens in 2022, and is expected to be released sometime in 2023.
If you’re a semi-serious amateur astronomer, chances are you’ve heard of a variable pair of stars called SS Cygni. When you watch the system for long enough, you’re rewarded with a brightness outburst that then fades away and then returns, regularly, over and over again.
Turns out this bright pair is even closer to us than we imagined — 370 light-years away, to be precise.
Before we get into how this was discovered, a bit of background on what SS Cygni is. As the name of the system implies, it’s in the constellation of Cygnus (the Swan). The pair consists of a cooling white dwarf star that is locked in a 6.6-hour orbit with a red dwarf.
The white dwarf’s gravity, which is much stronger than that of the red dwarf, is bleeding material from its neighbor. This interaction causes outbursts — on average, about once every 50 days.
Previously, the Hubble Space Telescope put the distance to these stars much further away, at 520 light-years. But that caused some head-scratching among astronomers.
“That was a problem. At that distance, SS Cygni would have been the brightest dwarf nova in the sky, and should have had enough mass moving through its disk to remain stable without any outbursts,” stated James Miller-Jones, of the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Perth, Australia.
Astronomers call SS Cygni a dwarf nova. When comparing it to similar systems, astronomers said the outbursts happen as matter changes its flow speed through the disc of material surrounding the white dwarf.
“At high rates of mass transfer from the red dwarf, the rotating disk remains stable, but when the rate is lower, the disk can become unstable and undergo an outburst,” stated the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. So what was happening?
To again look at the distance of the star, astronomers used two sets of radio telescopes, the Very Large Baseline Array and the European VLBI Network. Each set has a bunch of telescopes working together as an interferometer, allowing for precise measurements of star distances.
Scientists then took measurements at opposite ends of the Earth’s orbit, using the planet itself as a tool. By measuring the star’s distance at opposite sides of the orbit, we can calculate its parallax or apparent movement in the sky from the perspective of Earth. It’s an old astronomical tool used to pin down distances, and still works.
“This is one of the best-studied systems of its type, but according to our understanding of how these things work, it should not have been having outbursts. The new distance measurement brings it into line with the standard explanation,” stated Miller-Jones.
And where did Hubble go wrong? Here’s the theory:
“The radio observations were made against a background of objects far beyond our own Milky Way Galaxy, while the Hubble observations used stars within our galaxy as reference points,” NRAO stated. “The more-distant objects provide a better, more stable, reference.”
A disco inferno in space? Astronomers have been keeping an eye on an unusual star that unleashes a burst of light every 25 days, like an extremely slow pulsating disco ball. Similar pulsating bursts of light have been seen before, but this one, named LRLL 54361 is the most powerful beacon ever seen.
Using the Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes, astronomers have solved the mystery of this star. It is actually two newly formed protostars in a binary system, doing a little disco dance of their own. And as they spin around each other on the smoky dance floor (actually a dense cloud of gas and dust), a blast of radiation is unleashed each time the stars get close to each other in their orbits. The effect seen by the telescopes is enhanced by an optical illusion called a light echo.
The unusual thing is, while astronomers have seen this phenomenon before, called pulsed accretion, usually it is found in later stages of star birth – and not in such a young system or with such intensity and regularity.
Astronomers say LRLL 54361 offers insights into the early stages of star formation when lots of gas and dust is being rapidly accreted to form a new binary star.
“This protostar has such large brightness variations with a precise period that it is very difficult to explain,” said James Muzerolle of the Space Telescope Science Institute. His paper recently was published in the journal Nature.
Discovered by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, LRLL 54361 is a variable object inside the star-forming region IC 348, located 950 light-years from Earth. Data from Spitzer’s dust-piercing infrared cameras showed unusual outbursts in the brightness, occurring every 25.34 days, which is a very rare phenomenon.
Based on statistical analysis, the two stars are estimated to be no more than a few hundred thousand years old.
Astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope to confirm the Spitzer observations and reveal the detailed stellar structure around LRLL 54361. Hubble observed two cavities above and below a dusty disk. The cavities are visible by tracing light scattered off their edges. They likely were blown out of the surrounding natal envelope of dust and gas by an outflow launched near the central stars. The disk and the envelope prevent the suspected binary star pair from being observed directly. By capturing multiple images over the course of one pulse event, the Hubble observations uncovered a spectacular movement of light away from the center of the system, the light echo optical illusion, where a sudden flash or burst of light is reflected off a source and arrives at the viewer some time after the initial flash.
Muzerolle and his team hypothesized the pair of stars in the center of the dust cloud move around each other in a very eccentric orbit. As the stars approach each other, dust and gas are dragged from the inner edge of a surrounding disk. The material ultimately crashes onto one or both stars, which triggers a flash of light that illuminates the circumstellar dust. The system is rare because close binaries account for only a few percent of our galaxy’s stellar population. This is likely a brief, transitory phase in the birth of a star system.
Muzerolle’s team next plans to continue monitoring LRLL 54361 using other facilities including the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Telescope. The team hopes to eventually obtain more direct measurements of the binary star and its orbit.
Astronomers think about half of the stars in our Milky Way galaxy are, unlike our Sun, part of a binary system where two stars orbit each other. However, they’ve also thought there was a limit on how close the two stars could be without merging into one single, bigger star. But now a team of astronomers have discovered four pairs of stars in very tight orbits that were thought to be impossibly close. These newly discovered pairs orbit each other in less than 4 hours.
Over the last three decades, observations have shown a large population of stellar binaries, and none of them had an orbital period shorter than 5 hours. Most likely, the stars in these systems were formed close together and have been in orbit around each other from birth onwards.
A team of astronomers using the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii made the first investigation of red dwarf binary systems. Red dwarfs can be up to ten times smaller and a thousand times less luminous than the Sun. Although they form the most common type of star in the Milky Way, red dwarfs do not show up in normal surveys because of their dimness in visible light.
But astronomers using UKIRT have been monitoring the brightness of hundreds of thousands of stars, including thousands of red dwarfs, in near-infrared light, using its state-of-the-art Wide-Field Camera (WFC).
“To our complete surprise, we found several red dwarf binaries with orbital periods significantly shorter than the 5 hour cut-off found for Sun-like stars, something previously thought to be impossible,” said Bas Nefs from Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, lead author of the paper which was published in journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. “It means that we have to rethink how these close-in binaries form and evolve.”
Since stars shrink in size early in their lifetime, the fact that these very tight binaries exist means that their orbits must also have shrunk as well since their birth, otherwise the stars would have been in contact early on and have merged. However, it is not at all clear how these orbits could have shrunk by so much.
One possible scenario is that cool stars in binary systems are much more active and violent than previously thought.
The astronomers said it is possible that the magnetic field lines radiating out from the cool star companions get twisted and deformed as they spiral in towards each other, generating the extra activity through stellar wind, explosive flaring and star spots. Powerful magnetic activity could apply the brakes to these spinning stars, slowing them down so that they move closer together.
“The active nature of these stars and their apparently powerful magnetic fields has profound implications for the environments around red dwarfs throughout our Galaxy, ” said team member said David Pinfield from the University of Hertfordshire.
UKIRT has a 3.8 meter diameter mirror, and is the second largest dedicated infrared telescope in the world. It sits at an altitude of 4,200 m on the top of the volcano Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii.
Lead image caption: This artist’s impression shows the tightest of the new record breaking binary systems. Two active M4 type red dwarfs orbit each other every 2.5 hours, as they continue to spiral inwards. Eventually they will coalesce into a single star. Credit: J. Pinfield.
Scott Kardel from the Palomar Observatory just posted something extremely cool on his Palomar Skies website. Back in 2001, a group of astronomers used the 200-inch Hale Telescope equipped with adaptive optics to observe Saturn’s moon Titan pass in front of a binary star system. The binary stars are separated in the sky by just 1.5 arc seconds, but because of the fantastic resolving power of the Hale and its adaptive optics, visible in the image above is the light of the star nearest to Titan being refracted by Titan’s dense atmosphere. As Scott said, such events are rare but valuable. Mike Brown (of Eris fame) was among the astronomers and on Twitter today, he linked to a video the team created from their observations, which is just awesome. Not only did they see the occultation, but they also found out that Titan has jet stream-like winds in its atmosphere. Watch the movie, (or see below, someone has now YouTubed it) and then read their paper about the event!
Using a collection of radio telescopes, astronomers have found a giant magnetic loop stretched outward from one of the stars making up the famous binary star system Algol, located in the constellation Perseus. “This is the first time we’ve seen a feature like this in the magnetic field of any star other than the Sun,” said William Peterson, of the University of Iowa.
The double star system, 93 light-years from Earth, includes a star about 3 times more massive than the Sun and a less-massive companion, orbiting it at a distance of 5.8 million miles, only about six percent of the distance between Earth and the Sun. The newly-discovered magnetic loop emerges from the poles of the less-massive star and stretches outward in the direction of the primary star. As the secondary star orbits its companion, one side — the side with the magnetic loop — constantly faces the more-massive star, just as the same side of our Moon always faces the Earth.
The scientists detected the magnetic loop by making extremely detailed images of the system using an intercontinental set of radio telescopes, including the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array, Very Large Array, and Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, along with the Effelsberg radio telescope in Germany. These radio telescopes were used as a single observing system that offered both great detail, or resolving power, and high sensitivity to detect very faint radio waves. When working together, these telescopes are known as the High Sensitivity Array.
Algol is visible to the naked eye and well-known to amateur astronomers. As seen from Earth, the two stars regularly pass in front of each other, causing a notable change in brightness. The pair completes a cycle of such eclipses in less than three days, making it a popular object for amateur observers. The variability in brightness was discovered by an Italian astronomer in 1667, and the eclipsing-binary explanation was confirmed in 1889.
The newly-discovered magnetic loop helps explain phenomena seen in earlier observations of the Algol system at X-ray and radio wavelengths, the scientists said. In addition, they now believe there may be similar magnetic features in other double-star systems.
Fanciful science fiction and space art frequently depict the lovely visage of a twin sunset where a pair of binary stars dips below the horizon (think Star Wars). While it has been established that planets could exist in such a system by orbiting in resonances, that only holds true for fully formed planets. Can forming star systems even support an accretion disk from which to form planets? This is the question a new paper by M. G. Petr-Gotzens and S. Daemgen of the European Southern Observatory with S Correia from the Astronomiches Institut Potsdam attempts to answer.
Observations of single young stars with disks have revealed that the main force causing the dispersion of the disk is the star itself. The stellar wind and radiation pressure blow the disk away within 6 to 10 million years. Predictably, more massive and hotter stars will disperse their disks more quickly. However, “many stars are members of a binary or multiple system, and for nearby solar-like stars the binary fraction is even as high as ~60%.” Could gravitational perturbations or the added intensity from two stars strip disks before planets could form?
To explore this, the team observed 22 young and forming binary star systems in the Orion Nebula to look for signs of disks. They used two primary methods: The first was to look for excess emission in the near infrared. This would trace accretion disks as they radiate away absorbed energy as heat. The second was to look spectroscopically for specific bromine emission that is excited as the magnetic field of the young star pulls this (and other) elements from the disk onto the stars surface.
When the results were analyzed they found that as much as 80% of the binary systems had an active accretion disk. Many only contained a disk around the primary star although nearly as many contained disks around both stars. Only one system had evidence of an accretion disk around only the secondary (lower mass) star. They authors note, “[t]he under-representation of active accretion
disks among secondaries hints at disk dissipation working faster on (potentially) lower mass secondaries, leading us to speculate that secondaries are possibly less likely to form planets.”
However, the average age of the stars observed was only ~1 million years. This means that, even though disks may be able to form, the study was not comprehensive enough to determine whether or not they would last. Yet a survey of the currently known extra-solar planets reveal that they must. The authors comment, “[a]lmost 40 of all the extra-solar planets discovered to date reside in wide binary systems where the component separation is larger than 100AU (large enough that planet formation around one star should not strongly be inuenced [sic] by the companion star).”
Strangely, this seems to stand at odds with a 2007 paper by Trilling et al. which studied other binary systems for the same IR excess indicative of debris disks. In their study, they determined “[a] very large fraction (nearly 60%) of observed binary systems
with small (<3 AU) separations have excess thermal emission.” This suggests that such close systems may indeed be able to retain disks for some time. It is unclear on whether or not it can be retained long enough to form planets although it seems unlikely since no exoplanets are known around close binaries.