An Extremely Rare Gamma Ray Emitting Neutron Star Binary Has Been Found

Neutron stars are one of the most fascinating astronomical objects in the known Universe. In addition to being the densest type of star (with the possible exception of quark stars), they have also been known to form binary pairs with massive stars. To date, only 39 such systems have been discovered, and even fewer have been detected that were composed of a massive star and a very high energy (VHE) gamma-ray neutron star.

To date, only two of these systems have been found, the second of which was discovered just a few years ago by a team of international astronomers known as the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) collaboration. In addition to being a rare find, the discovery was also very fortunate, since the unusual behavior they observed coming from this system will not be happening again until 2067.

Continue reading “An Extremely Rare Gamma Ray Emitting Neutron Star Binary Has Been Found”

Globular Clusters Might not be as Old as Astronomers Thought. Like, Billions of Years Younger

Globular clusters have been a source of fascination ever since astronomers first observed them in the 17th century. These spherical collections of stars are among the oldest known stars in the Universe, and can be found in the outer regions of most galaxies. Because of their age and the fact that almost all larger galaxies appear to have them, their role in galactic evolution has remained something of a mystery.

Previously, astronomers were of the opinion that globular clusters were some of the earliest stars to have formed in the Universe, roughly 13 billion years ago. However, new research has indicated that these clusters may actually be about 4 billion years younger, being roughly 9 billion years old. These findings may alter our understanding of how the Milky Way and other galaxies formed, and how the Universe itself came to be.

The study, titled “Reevaluating Old Stellar Populations“, recently appeared online and is being evaluated for publication in The Monthly Notices for the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Dr. Elizabeth Stanway, an Associate Professor in the Astronomy group at the University of Warwick, UK, and was assisted by Dr. J.J. Eldridge, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Within larger galaxies, like the Milky Way, globular clusters are part of the galactic halo. Between 150 and 180 are estimated to be part of the Milky Way alone. Credit: ESO

For the sake of their study, Dr. Stanway and Dr. Eldridge developed a series of new research models designed to reconsider the evolution of stars. These models, known as Binary Population and Spectral Synthesis (BPASS) models, had previously proven effective in exploring the properties of young stellar populations within the Milky Way and throughout the Universe.

Using these same models, Dr. Stanway and Dr. Eldridge studied a sample of globular clusters in the Milky Way and nearby quiescent galaxies. They also took into account the details of binary star evolution within globular clusters and used them to explore the colors of light and spectra from old binary populations. In short, binary star system evolution consists of one star expanding into a giant while the gravitational force of the smaller star strips away the atmosphere of the giant.

What they found was that these binary systems were about 9 billion years old. Since these stars are thought to have formed at the same time as the globular clusters themselves, this demonstrated that globular clusters are not as old as other models have suggested. As Dr. Stanway said of the BPASS models she and Dr. Eldridge developed:

“Determining ages for stars has always depended on comparing observations to the models which encapsulate our understanding of how stars form and evolve. That understanding has changed over time, and we have been increasingly aware of the effects of stellar multiplicity – the interactions between stars and their binary and tertiary companions.

An artist’s impression of a millisecond pulsar and its companion. The presence of binaries in globular clusters is a good means of providing age estimates of those clusters. Credit: ESA & Francesco Ferraro (Bologna Astronomical Observatory)

If correct, this study could open up new pathways of research into how massive galaxies and their stars are formed. However, Dr. Stanway admits that much work still lies ahead, which includes looking at nearby star systems where individual stars can be resolved – rather than considering the integrated light of a cluster. Nevertheless, the study could have immense significant for our understanding of how and when galaxies in our Universe formed.

“If true, it changes our picture of the early stages of galaxy evolution and where the stars that have ended up in today’s massive galaxies, such as the Milky Way, may have formed,” she said. “We aim to follow up this research in the future, exploring both improvements in modelling and the observable predictions which arise from them.”

An integral part of cosmology is understanding when the Universe came to be the way it is, not just how. By determining how old globular clusters are, astronomers will have another crucial piece of the puzzle as to how and when the earliest galaxies formed. And these, combined with observations that look to the earliest epochs of the Universe, could just yield a complete model of cosmology.

Further Reading: University of Warwick, arXiv

For the First Time, Astronomers Have Found a Star That Survived its Companion Exploding as Supernova

A Type II supernova is a truly amazing astronomical event. As with all supernovae, a Type II consists of a star experiencing core collapse at the end of its life cycle and exploding, causing it to shed its outer layers. A subclass of this type is known as Type IIb, which are stars that have been stripped of their hydrogen fuel and undergo collapse because they are no longer able to maintain fusion in their core.

Seventeen years ago, astronomers were fortunate enough to witness a Type IIb supernova in the galaxy NGC 7424, located 40 million light-years away in the southern constellation Grus. Now that this supernova has faded, the Hubble Space Telescope recently captured the first image of a surviving companion, thus demonstrating that supernovae do indeed happen in double-star systems.

The study, titled “Ultraviolet Detection of the Binary Companion to the Type IIb SN 2001ig“, was recently published in the Astrophysical Journal. The study was led by Stuart Ryder of the Australian Astronomical Observatory and included members from California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI), the University of Amsterdam, the University of Arizona, the University of York, and the University of California.

This discovery is the most compelling evidence to date that some supernovae originate as a result of siphoning between binary pairs. As Stuart Ryder indicated in a recent NASA press release:

“We know that the majority of massive stars are in binary pairs. Many of these binary pairs will interact and transfer gas from one star to the other when their orbits bring them close together.”

The supernova, called SN 2001ig, was pinpointed by astronomers in 2002 using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). In 2004, these observations were followed-up with the Gemini South Observatory, which first hinted at the presence of a surviving binary companion. Knowing the exact coordinates, Ryder and his team were able to focus Hubble on that location as the supernova’s glow faded.

The find was especially fortuitous because it might also shed light on a astronomical mystery, which is how stripped-envelop supernovae lose their outer envelopes. Originally, scientists believed they were the result of stars with very fast winds that pushed off their outer envelopes. However, when astronomers began looking for the primary stars which spawned these supernovae, they could not find them.

Artist’s impression of a pulsar siphoning material from a companion star. Credit: NASA

As Ori Fox, a member of the Space Telescope Science Institute and a co-author on the paper, explained:

“That was especially bizarre, because astronomers expected that they would be the most massive and the brightest progenitor stars. Also, the sheer number of stripped-envelope supernovas is greater than predicted.”

This led scientists to theorize that many of the stripped-envelop stars were the primary in lower-mass binary star systems. All that remained was to find a supernova that was part of a binary system, which Ryder and his colleagues set out to do. This was no easy task, seeing as how the companion was rather faint and at the very limits of what Hubble could see.

In addition, not many supernovae are known to go off within this distance range. Last, but not least, they had to know the exact position through very precise measurements. Thanks to Hubble’s exquisite resolution and ultraviolet capability, they were able to find and photograph the surviving companion.

Prior to the supernova, the stars orbited each other with a period of about one year. When the primary star exploded, it had an impact on the companion, but it remained intact. Because of this, SN 2001ig is the first surviving companion to ever be photographed.

Artist’s rendering of SN 1993J, where a red supergiant supernova progenitor star (left) is exploding after having transferred about 10 solar masses of hydrogen gas to the blue companion star (right). Credit: ESA

Looking ahead, Ryder and his team hope to precisely determine how many supernovae with stripped envelopes have companions. At present, it is estimated that at least half of them do, while the other half lose their outer enveloped due to stellar winds. Their next goal is to examine completely stripped-envelope supernovae, as opposed to SN 2001ig and SN 1993J, which were only about 90% stripped.

Luckily, they won’t have to wait as long to examine these completely stripped-envelope supernovae, since they don’t have as much shock interaction with gas in their surrounding environment. In short, since they lost their outer envelopes long before they exploded, they fade much faster. This means that the team will only have to wait two to three years before looking for the surviving companions.

Their efforts are also likely to be helped by the deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is scheduled to launch in 2020. Depending on what they find, astronomers may be ready to resolve the mystery of what causes the different types of supernovae, which could also reveal more about the life cycles of stars and the birth of black holes.

Further Reading: NASA, The Astrophysical Journal

That Interstellar Asteroid ‘Oumuamua Probably Came From a Binary Star System

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) telescope in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid – I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Since that time, no effort has been spared to study this object before it leaves our Solar System. These include listening to it for signs of communications, determining its true nature and shape, and determining where it came from.

In fact, the question of this interstellar object’s origins has been mystery since it was first discovered. While astronomers are sure that it came from the direction of Vega and some details have been learned about its past, where it originated from remains unknown. But according to a new study by a team of astronomers from the University of Toronto, Scarborough, ‘Oumuamua may have originally come from a binary star system.

The study, titled “Ejection of rocky and icy material from binary star systems: Implications for the origin and composition of 1I/‘Oumuamua “, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Alan P. Jackson, a research fellow at the Center for Planetary Sciences (CPS) at the University of Scarborough, and included members from both the CPS and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA).

Oumuamua as it appeared using the William Herschel Telescope on the night of October 29. Credit: Queen’s University Belfast/William Herschel Telescope

For the sake of their study, Jackson and his co-authors considered how in single star systems (like our own), asteroids do not get ejected very often. For the most part, it is comets that become interstellar objects, mainly because they orbit the Sun at a greater distance and are less tightly bound by its gravity. And while ‘Oumuamua was initially mistaken for a comet, follow-up observations by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) indicated that it is  likely an asteroid.

With the help of other astronomers, it soon became apparent that ‘Oumuamua was likely an oddly-shaped rocky object that measured about 400 meters (1312 ft) long and was tube-shaped. These findings were rather surprising to astronomers. As Jackson explained in a recent Royal Astronomical Society press release:

“It’s really odd that the first object we would see from outside our system would be an asteroid, because a comet would be a lot easier to spot and the Solar System ejects many more comets than asteroids.”

As such, Jackson and his team hypothesized that interstellar objects like ‘Oumuamau are more likely to be ejected from a binary system. To test this theory, they constructed a population synthesis model that considered just how common binary star systems are in the Galaxy. They also conducted 2000 N-body simulations to see just how efficient such systems would be at ejecting objects like ‘Oumuamua.

Diagram showing the orbit of the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua as it passes through the Solar System. Credit: ESO/K. Meech et al.

What they found was that binary stars are produced at a rate of about 30% by number and 41% by mass, and that rocky objects like ‘Oumuamua are far more likely to be ejected from binary than single star systems. Based on ‘Oumuamua’s rocky composition, they also determined that the asteroid was likely ejected from the inner part of its solar system (i.e. inside the “Ice Line”) while the system was still in the process of formation.

Lastly, they determined that rocky objects are ejected from binary systems in comparable numbers to icy objects. This is based on the fact that the presence of a companion star would mean that more material would become unstable due to stellar encounters. In the end, this material would be more likely to be ejected rather than accreted to form planets, or take up residence in the outer reaches of the star system.

While there are still many unanswered questions about ‘Oumuamua, it remains the first interstellar asteroid that scientists have ever known. As such, its continued study can tell us a great deal about what lies beyond our Solar System. As Jackson put it:

“The same way we use comets to better understand planet formation in our own Solar System, maybe this curious object can tell us more about how planets form in other systems.”

The team’s findings were also the subject of a presentation that took place at the 49th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, which took place this week at The Woodlands, Texas.

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society, MNRAS

The Sun Probably Lost a Binary Twin Billions of Years Ago

For us Earthlings, life under a single Sun is just the way it is. But with the development of modern astronomy, we’ve become aware of the fact that the Universe is filled with binary and even triple star systems. Hence, if life does exist on planets beyond our Solar System, much of it could be accustomed to growing up under two or even three suns. For centuries, astronomers have wondered why this difference exists and how star systems came to be.

Whereas some astronomers argue that individual stars formed and acquired companions over time, others have suggested that systems began with multiple stars and lost their companions over time. According to a new study by a team from UC Berkeley and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), it appears that the Solar System (and other Sun-like stars) may have started out as binary system billions of years ago.

This study, titled “Embedded Binaries and Their Dense Cores“, was recently accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. In it, Sarah I. Sadavoy – a radio astronomer from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and the CfA – and Steven W. Stahler (a theoretical physicist from UC Berkeley) explain how a radio surveys of a star nursery led them to conclude that most Sun-like stars began as binaries.

The dark molecular cloud, Barnard 68, is a stellar nursery that can only be studied using radio astronomy. Credit: FORS Team, 8.2-meter VLT Antu, ESO

They began by examining the results of the first radio survey of the giant molecular cloud located about 600 light-years from Earth in the Perseus constellation – aka. the Perseus Molecular Cloud. This survey, known as the VLA/ALMA Nascent Disk and Multiplicity (VANDAM) survey, relied the Very Large Array in New Mexico and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile to conduct the first survey of the young stars (<4 million years old) in this star-forming region.

For several decades, astronomers have known that stars are born inside “stellar nurseries”, which are the dense cores that exist within immense clouds of dust and cold, molecular hydrogen. These clouds look like holes in the star field when viewed through an optical telescope, thanks to all the dust grains that obscure light coming from the stars forming within them and from background stars.

Radio surveys are the only way to probe these star-forming regions, since the dust grains emit radio transmissions and also do not block them. For years, Stahler has been attempting to get radio astronomers to examine molecular clouds in the hope of gathering information on the formation of young stars inside them. To this end, he approached Sarah Sadavoy – a member of the VANDAM team – and proposed a collaboration.

The two began their work together by conducting new observations of both single and binary stars within the dense core regions of the Perseus cloud. As Sadavoy explained in a Berkeley News press release, the duo were looking for clues as to whether young stars formed as individuals or in pairs:

“The idea that many stars form with a companion has been suggested before, but the question is: how many? Based on our simple model, we say that nearly all stars form with a companion. The Perseus cloud is generally considered a typical low-mass star-forming region, but our model needs to be checked in other clouds.”

Infrared image from the Hubble Space Telescope, showing a bright, fan-shaped object (lower right quadrant) thought to be a binary star that emits light pulses as the two stars interact. Credit: NASA/ESA/ J. Muzerolle (STScI)

Their observations of the Perseus cloud revealed a series of Class 0 and Class I stars – those that are <500,000 old and 500,000 to 1 million years old, respectively – that were surrounded by egg-shaped cocoons. These observations were then combined with the results from VANDAM and other surveys of star forming regions – including the Gould Belt Survey and data gathered by SCUBA-2 instrument on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii.

From this, they created a census of stars within the Perseus cloud, which included 55 young stars in 24 multiple-star systems (all but five of them binary) and 45 single-star systems. What they observed was that all of the widely separated binary systems – separated by more than 500 AU – were very young systems containing two Class 0 stars  that tended to be aligned with the long axis of their egg-shaped dense cores.

Meanwhile, the slightly older Class I binary stars were closer together (separated by about 200 AU) and did not have the same tendency as far as their alignment was concerned. From this, the study’s authors began mathematically modelling multiple scenarios to explain this distribution, and concluded that all stars with masses comparable to our Sun start off as wide Class 0 binaries. They further concluded that 60% of these split up over time while the rest shrink to form tight binaries.

“As the egg contracts, the densest part of the egg will be toward the middle, and that forms two concentrations of density along the middle axis,” said Stahler. “These centers of higher density at some point collapse in on themselves because of their self-gravity to form Class 0 stars. “Within our picture, single low-mass, sunlike stars are not primordial. They are the result of the breakup of binaries. ”

The two brightest stars of the Centaurus constellation, the binary star system of Alpha Centauri. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Skatebiker

Findings of this nature have never before been seen or tested. They also imply that each dense core within a stellar nursery (i.e. the egg-shaped cocoons, which typically comprise a few solar masses) converts twice as much material into stars as was previously thought. As Stahler remarked:

“The key here is that no one looked before in a systematic way at the relation of real young stars to the clouds that spawn them. Our work is a step forward in understanding both how binaries form and also the role that binaries play in early stellar evolution. We now believe that most stars, which are quite similar to our own sun, form as binaries. I think we have the strongest evidence to date for such an assertion.”

This new data could also be the start of a new trend, where astronomers rely on radio telescopes to examine dense star-forming regions with the hopes of witnessing more in the way of stellar formations. With the recent upgrades to the VLA and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, and the ongoing data provided by the SCUBA-2 survey in Hawaii, these studies may be coming sooner other than later.

Another interesting implication of the study has to do with something known as the “Nemesis hypothesis”. In the past, astronomers have conjectured that a companion star named “Nemesis” existed within our Solar System. This star was so-named because the theory held that it was responsible for kicking the asteroid which caused the extinction of the dinosaurs into Earth’s orbit. Alas, all attempts to find Nemesis ended in failure.

Artist’s impression of the binary star system of Sirius, a white dwarf star in orbit around Sirius (a white supergiant). Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

As Steven Stahler indicated, these findings could be interpreted as a new take on the Nemesis theory:

“We are saying, yes, there probably was a Nemesis, a long time ago. We ran a series of statistical models to see if we could account for the relative populations of young single stars and binaries of all separations in the Perseus molecular cloud, and the only model that could reproduce the data was one in which all stars form initially as wide binaries. These systems then either shrink or break apart within a million years.”

So while their results do not point towards a star being around for the extinction of the dinosaurs, it is possible (and even highly plausible) that billions of years ago, the Solar planets orbited around two stars. One can only imagine what implications this could have for the early history of the Solar System and how it might have affected planetary formation. But that will be the subject of future studies, no doubt!

Further Reading: Berkeley News, arXiv

We Finally Know why the Boomerang Nebula is Colder than Space Itself

The Boomerang Nebula, a proto-planetary nebula that was created by a dying red giant star (located about 5000 light years from Earth), has been a compelling mystery for astronomers since 1995. It was at this time, thanks to a team using the now-decommissioned 15-meter Swedish-ESO Submillimetre Telescope (SESTI) in Chile, that this nebula came to be known as the coldest object in the known Universe.

And now, over 20 years later, we may know why. According to a team of astronomers who used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) – located in the Atacama desert in northern Chile – the answer may involve a small companion star plunging into the red giant. This process could have ejected most of the larger star’s matter, creating an ultra-cold outflow of gas and dust in the process.

The team’s findings appeared in a paper titled “The Coldest Place in the Universe: Probing the Ultra-cold Outflow and Dusty Disk in the Boomerang Nebula“, which appeared recently in the Astrophysical Journal. Led by Raghvendra Sahai, an astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, they argue that the rapid expansion of this gas is what has caused it to become so cold.

Composite image of the Boomerang Nebula, with ALMA observations (orange) showing the e hourglass-shaped outflow on top of an image from the Hubble Space Telescope (blue). Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); NASA/ESA Hubble; NRAO/AUI/NSF

Originally discovered in 1980 by a team of astronomers using the Anglo-Australian telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory, the mystery of this nebula became apparent when astronomers noted that it appeared to be absorbing the light of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). This background radiation, which is the energy leftover from the Big Bang, provides the natural background temperature of space – 2.725 K (–270.4 °C; -454.7 °F).

For the Boomerang Nebula to absorb that radiation, it had to be even colder than the CMB. Subsequent observations revealed that this was in fact the case, as the nebula has a temperature of less than half a degree K (-272.5 °C; -458.5 °F). The reason for this, according to the recent study, has to do with the gas cloud that extends from the central star to a distance of 21,000 AU (21 thousands times the distance between Earth and the Sun).

The gas cloud – which is the result of a jet that is being fired by the central star – is expanding at a rate that is about 10 times faster than what a single star could produce on its own. After conducting measurements with ALMA that revealed regions of the outflow that were never before seen (out to a distance of about 120,000 AUs), the team concluded that this is what is driving temperatures to levels lower than that of background radiation

They further argue that this was the result of the central star having collided with a binary companion in the past, and were even able to deduce what the primary was like before this took place. The primary, they claim, was a Red Giant Branch (RGB) or early-RGB star – i.e. a star in the final phase of its life cycle – whose expansion caused its binary companion to be pulled in by its gravity.

ALMA image of the Boomerang Nebula, showing its massive outflowCredit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), R. Sahai

The companion star would have eventually merged with its core, which caused the outflow of gas to begin. As Raghvendra Sahai explained in a NRAO press release:

“These new data show us that most of the stellar envelope from the massive red giant star has been blasted out into space at speeds far beyond the capabilities of a single, red giant star. The only way to eject so much mass and at such extreme speeds is from the gravitational energy of two interacting stars, which would explain the puzzling properties of the ultra-cold outflow.”

These findings were made possible thanks to the ALMA’s ability to provide precise measurements on the extent, age, mass and kinetic energy of the nebula. Also, in addition to measuring the rate of outflow, they gathered that it has been taking place for around 1050 to 1925 years. The findings also indicate that the Boomerang Nebula’s days as the coldest object in the known Universe may be numbered.

Looking forward, the red giant star in the center is expected to continue the process of becoming a planetary nebula – where stars shed their outer layers to form an expanding shell of gas. In this respect, it is expected to shrink and get hotter, which will warm up the nebula around it and make it brighter.

As Lars-Åke Nyman, an astronomer at the Joint ALMA Observatory in Santiago, Chile, and co-author on the paper,  said:

“We see this remarkable object at a very special, very short-lived period of its life. It’s possible these super cosmic freezers are quite common in the universe, but they can only maintain such extreme temperatures for a relatively short time.”

These findings could also provide new insights into another cosmological mystery, which is how giant stars and their companions behave. When the larger star in these systems exists its main-sequence phase, it may consume its smaller companion and similarly become a “cosmic freezer”. Herein lies the value of objects like the Boomerang Nebula, which challenges conventional ideas about the interactions of binary systems.

It also demonstrates the value of next-generations instruments like ALMA. Given their superior optical capabilities and ability to obtain more high-resolution information, they can show us some never-before-seen things about our Universe, which can only challenge our preconceived notions of what is possible out there.

Further Reading: NRAO

Double Disc Found Feeding Each Other In Binary Star System

Deep within the Taurus Dark Cloud complex, one of the closest star-forming regions to Earth has just revealed one of its secrets – an umbilical cord of gas flowing from the expansive outer disc toward the interior of a binary star system known as GG Tau-A. According to the ESO press release, this never-before-seen feature may be responsible for sustaining a second, smaller disc of planet-forming material that otherwise would have disappeared long ago.

A research group led by Anne Dutrey from the Laboratory of Astrophysics of Bordeaux, France and CNRS used the Atacama Large
Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to observe the distribution of
dust and gas in the unusual GG Tau-A system. Since at least half of
Sun-like stars are the product of binary star systems, these type of
findings may produce even more fertile grounds for discovering
exoplanets. However, the 450 light year distant GG Tau system is even more complex than previously thought. Through observations taken with the VLTI, astronomers have discovered its primary star – home to the inner disc – is part of a more involved multiple-star system. The secondary star is also a close binary!

“We may be witnessing these types of exoplanetary systems in the midst of formation,” said Jeffrey Bary, an astronomer at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., and co-author of the paper. “In a sense, we are learning why these seemingly strange systems exist.”

Let’s take a look…

This artist’s impression shows the dust and gas around the double star system GG Tauri-A. Researchers using ALMA have detected gas in the region between two discs in this binary system. This may allow planets to form in the gravitationally perturbed environment of the binary. Half of Sun-like stars are born in binary systems, meaning that these findings will have major consequences for the hunt for exoplanets.
This artist’s impression shows the dust and gas around the double star system GG Tauri-A. Researchers using ALMA have detected gas in the region between two discs in this binary system. This may allow planets to form in the gravitationally perturbed environment of the binary. Half of Sun-like stars are born in binary systems, meaning that these findings will have major consequences for the hunt for exoplanets.

“Like a wheel in a wheel, GG Tau-A contains a large, outer disc
encircling the entire system as well as an inner disc around the main central star. This second inner disc has a mass roughly equivalent to that of Jupiter.” says the research team. “Its presence has been an intriguing mystery for astronomers since it is losing material to its central star at a rate that should have depleted it long ago.”

Thanks to studies done with ALMA, the researchers made an exciting discovery in these disc structures… gas clumps located between the two. This observation could mean that material is being fed from the outer disc to feed the inner. Previously observations done with ALMA show that a single star pulls its materials inward from the outer disc. Is it possible these gas pockets in the double disc GG Tau-A system are creating a sustaining lifeline between the two?

“Material flowing through the cavity was predicted by computer
simulations but has not been imaged before. Detecting these clumps
indicates that material is moving between the discs, allowing one to
feed off the other,” explains Dutrey. “These observations demonstrate that material from the outer disc can sustain the inner disc for a long time. This has major consequences for potential planet formation.”

As we know, planets are created from the materials leftover from
stellar ignition. However, the creation of a solar system occurs at a snail’s pace, meaning that a debris disc with longevity is required for planet formation. Thanks to these new “disc feeding” observations from ALMA, researchers can surmise that other multiple-star systems behave in a similar manner… creating even more possibilities for exoplanet formation.

“This means that multiple star systems have a way to form planets, despite their complicated dynamics. Given that we continue to find interesting planetary systems, our observations provide a glimpse of the mechanisms that enable such systems to form,” concludes Bary.

During the initial phase of planetary searches, the emphasis was placed on Sun-like, single-host stars. Later on, binary systems gave rise to giant Jupiter-sized planets – nearly large enough to be stars on their own. Now the focus has turned to pointing our planetary discovery efforts towards individual members of multiple-systems.

Emmanuel Di Folco, co-author of the paper, concludes: “Almost half the Sun-like stars were born in binary systems. This means that we have found a mechanism to sustain planet formation that applies to a significant number of stars in the Milky Way. Our observations are a big step forward in truly understanding planet formation.”

Original Story Source: Planet-forming Lifeline Discovered in a Binary Star System ALMA Examines Ezekiel-like “Wheel in a Wheel” of Dust and Gas – ESO Science News Release.

Radio Telescopes Help Astronomers Tune In To Nova Generated Gamma Rays

Over two years ago, the Fermi-LAT Collaboration observed an “ear and eye opening” event – the exact location where a stellar explosion called a nova emitted one of the most energentic forms of electromagnetic waves… gamma rays. When it was first detected in 2012, it was something of a mystery, but the findings could very well point to what may cause gamma ray emissions.

“We not only found where the gamma rays came from, but also got a look at a previously-unseen scenario that may be common in other nova explosions,” said Laura Chomiuk, of Michigan State University.

A nova? According to the Fermi researchers, a classical nova results from runaway thermonuclear explosions on the surface of a white dwarf that accretes matter from a low-mass main-sequence stellar companion. As it gathers in material, the thermonuclear event expels debris into surrounding space. However, astronomers didn’t expect this “normal” event to produce high energy gamma rays!

Explains the Fermi-LAT team: “The gamma-ray detections point to unexpected high-energy particle acceleration processes linked to the mass ejection from thermonuclear explosions in an unanticipated class of Galactic gamma-ray sources.”

While NASA’s Fermi spacecraft was busy watching a nova called V959 Mon, some 6500 light-years from Earth, other radio telescopes were also busy picking up on the gamma ray incidences. The Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) was documenting radio waves coming from the nova. The source of these emissions could be subatomic particles moving at nearly the speed of light interacting with magnetic fields – a condition needed to help produce gamma rays. These findings were backed up by the extremely-sharp radio “vision” of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) and the European VLBI network. They revealed two knots in the radio observations – knots which were moving away from each other. Additional studies were done with e-MERLIN in the UK, and another round of VLA observations in 2014. Now astronomers could begin to piece together the puzzle of how radio knots and gamma rays are produced.

According to the NRAO news release, the white dwarf and its companion give up some of their orbital energy to boost some of the explosion material, making the ejected material move outward faster in the plane of their orbit. Later, the white dwarf blows off a faster wind of particles moving mostly outward along the poles of the orbital plane. When the faster-moving polar flow hits the slower-moving material, the shock accelerates particles to the speeds needed to produce the gamma rays, and the knots of radio emission.

“By watching this system over time and seeing how the pattern of radio emission changed, then tracing the movements of the knots, we saw the exact behavior expected from this scenario,” Chomiuk said.

A nova does not explode like an expanding ball, but instead throws out gas in different directions at different times and different speeds. When this gas inevitably crashes together, it produces shocks and high-energy gamma-ray photons. The complex explosion and gas collisions in nova V959 Mon is illustrated here. In the first days of the nova explosion, dense, relatively slow-moving material is expelled along the binary star system's equator (yellow material in left panel). Over the next several weeks, fast winds pick up and are blown off the binary, but they are funneled along the binary star system's poles (blue material in central panel). The equatorial and polar material crashes together at their intersection, producing shocks and gamma-ray emission (red regions in central panel). Finally, at later times, the nova stops blowing a wind, and the material drifts off into space, the fireworks finished (right panel).  CREDIT: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF
A nova does not explode like an expanding ball, but instead throws out gas in different directions at different times and different speeds. When this gas inevitably crashes together, it produces shocks and high-energy gamma-ray photons. The complex explosion and gas collisions in nova V959 Mon is illustrated here. In the first days of the nova explosion, dense, relatively slow-moving material is expelled along the binary star system’s equator (yellow material in left panel). Over the next several weeks, fast winds pick up and are blown off the binary, but they are funneled along the binary star system’s poles (blue material in central panel). The equatorial and polar material crashes together at their intersection, producing shocks and gamma-ray emission (red regions in central panel). Finally, at later times, the nova stops blowing a wind, and the material drifts off into space, the fireworks finished (right panel). CREDIT: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

But the V959 Mon observations weren’t the end of the story. According to Fermi-LAT records, in 2012 and 2013, three novae were detected in gamma rays and stood in contrast to the first gamma-ray detected nova V407 Cygni 2010, which belongs to a rare class of symbiotic binary systems. Despite likely differences in the compositions and masses of their white dwarf progenitors, the three classical novae are similarly characterized as soft spectrum transient gamma-ray sources detected over 2-3 week durations.

“This mechanism may be common to such systems. The reason the gamma rays were first seen in V959 Mon is because it’s close,” Chomiuk said. Because the type of ejection seen in V959 Mon also is seen in other binary-star systems, the new insights may help astronomers understand how those systems develop. This “common envelope” phase occurs in all close binary stars, and is poorly understood. “We may be able to use novae as a ‘testbed’ for improving our understanding of this critical stage of binary evolution,” explains Chomiuk.

Original Story Source: Radio Telescopes Unravel Mystery of Nova Gamma Rays from National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Chomiuk worked with an international team of astronomers. The researchers reported their findings in the scientific journal “Nature”.

Can Tatooine Be Real?

We’re familiar with the sky on Tatooine with its twin suns. But could a planet actually orbit two stars at the same time? Could you have a planet in a multiple star system with 4, 6 or more suns?

Hey kids, you remember Star Wars right? Tatooine ring any bells? Lots of sand Tusken raiders walking single file. Banthas sweating all over the place like some crazy mammoth-goat breeding experiment gone horribly awry?
Tatooine was an arid desert planet, it had 2 suns and 3 moons. It’s not the only fictional planet to orbit multiple suns. In Nightfall by Isaac Asimov, planet Lagash had 6 suns. Could something like this be possible?

Interestingly, most stars in the Milky Way are in multiple star systems. You can easily have double, triple, or quadruple systems. There are even star clusters with hundreds or even thousands of stars. Just imagine the crazy chaotic gravitational interactions in a multiple star system.

So, could they have planets? Yes. There are circumbinary systems, where stars orbit each other their planets orbit outside, circling them both. Since the stars orbit one another so closely, it’s the gravitational equivalent of a single star. From an orbiting planet, the stars would always appear together in the sky.

To date, we have discovered 17 of these systems. Then there are wide binary systems, which are far more dangerous for planets. Here the planets orbit one main star, and there’s another star which maintains a distant orbit much further out. You don’t want to live there. The gravitational interactions are chaotic and lead to mayhem. In simulations, planets which aren’t tightly orbiting a star are ejected out of the system, or crashed into other planets or stars.

Artist's impression of the Cygnus-X1 binary. Credit: NASA / Honeywell Max-Q Digital Group / Dana Berry
Artist’s impression of the Cygnus-X1 binary. Credit: NASA / Honeywell Max-Q Digital Group / Dana Berry

We might already be detecting highly elliptical orbits from disrupted planets just like these. A triple star system was recently discovered in the constellation Cygnus: HD 188753. Here, a pair of stars are tightly bound, and these are in a wide binary arrangement with a sun-mass star. A planet closely orbits the primary star, but all other planets were likely ejected.

In the year 2012, a planet was found around Alpha Centauri B, and PH1 was the first quadruple star system to be discovered to have a planet. Kepler 47 is a multi-star, multi-planet system. Two stars orbit one another every 7.45 days. Here, the gas giant Kepler 47c orbits the stars every 303 days and is even located in the habitable zone. This sounds like perfect concept art for a Vin Diesel film, or artwork airbrushed on the side of a van.

Kepler-16b is but one example of an uncanny world.  It orbits two suns. Credit: Discovery
Kepler-16b is but one example of an uncanny world. It orbits two suns. Credit: Discovery

Finally, In 2011, the Kepler-16 system was found to have a circumbinary planet in the habitable zone. So, two stars, closely orbiting each other and a Saturn-mass, Kepler 16b orbiting the two. Astronomers informally called this a real Tatooine.

What do you think? Would you want to live on a desert world like Tatooine or Arrakis? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Rare White Dwarf Systems Do A Doubletake

For those of us who remain forever fascinated by astronomy, nothing could spark our imaginations more than a cosmic curiosity. In this case, the unusual object is a star cataloged as AM Canum Venaticorum (AM CVn) located in the constellation of Canes Venatici. What makes this dual star system of interest? Try the fact that the pair revolve completely around each other in a brief 18 minutes. What’s more, they are the stuff of which Einstein dreamed… creators of ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves.

Like other astronomical anomalies, AM CVn became the forerunner of a new class of stellar objects. It is a white dwarf, a sun-like star which has exhausted its fuel and collapsed to around the size of Earth. Yet it also has a white dwarf companion – a very compact orb which is delivering matter to its neighbor. AM Canum Venaticorum is not alone, however. There are similar systems where the stellar pairs complete their rotations in about an hour and even as rapidly as five minutes! Can you imagine the crackling amount of energy a system like this produces?!

Even though we have been aware of systems like AM CVn for almost five decades, no one is quite sure how they originate. Now, through the use of X-ray and optical observations, astronomers are taking a look at newly evolved double stars systems which one day might become a dueling duo dwarf. Heading their list are two binary systems, J0751 and J1741. These candidates were observed in the X-ray part of the electromagnetic spectrum by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton telescope. In addition, observations at optical wavelengths were made using the McDonald Observatory’s 2.1-meter telescope in Texas, and the Mt. John Observatory 1.0-meter telescope in New Zealand.

dual_dwarf“The artist’s illustration depicts what these systems are like now and what may happen to them in the future. The top panel shows the current state of the binary that contains one white dwarf (on the right) with about one-fifth the mass of the Sun and another much heavier and more compact white dwarf about five or more times as massive (unlike Sun-like stars, heavier white dwarfs are smaller).” says the Chandra X-ray Observatory news release.

What’s happening here? As the pair of white dwarf stars whip around each other, they are releasing gravitational waves which constrict the orbit. In time, the heavier, diminutive dwarf will begin stripping material from its lighter, larger companion (as seen in the middle panel). This material consumption will continue for perhaps a 100 million years, or until the collected matter reaches a critical mass and releases a thermonuclear explosion.

Another scenario is the thermonuclear explosion could annihilate the larger white dwarf completely in what astronomers call a Type Ia supernova. An event like this is well-known and gives a measurement in standard candles for cosmic distance. However, chances are better the explosion will happen on the surface of the star – an event known as .Ia supernovae. While .Ia supernovae events have been recorded in other galaxies, J0751 and J1741 are the first binary stars which have the potential to erupt in .Ia supernovae.

“The optical observations were critical in identifying the two white dwarfs in these systems and ascertaining their masses. The X-ray observations were needed to rule out the possibility that J0751 and J1741 contained neutron stars.” says the Chandra team. “A neutron star – which would disqualify it from being a possible parent to an AM CVn system – would give off strong X-ray emission due to its magnetic field and rapid rotation. Neither Chandra nor XMM-Newton detected any X-rays from these systems.”

Are AM CVn systems riding the gravitational wave? While astronomers haven’t been able to detect them yet, these new observations are highly important because equipment to verify their presences is currently being developed. It won’t be long until we can see the wave and have a whole new way of looking at the Universe!

Original Story Source: Chandra Observatory News Release.