According to the most widely-accepted theory about star formation (Nebular Hypothesis), stars and planets form from huge clouds of dust and gas. These clouds undergo gravitational collapse at their center, leading to the birth of new stars, while the rest of the material forms disks around it. Over time, these disks become ring structures that accrete to form systems of planets, planetoids, asteroid belts, and Kuiper belts. For some time, astronomers have questioned how interactions between early stellar environments may affect their formation and evolution.
For instance, it has been theorized that gravitational interactions with a passing star or shock waves from a supernova might have triggered the core collapse that led to our Sun. To investigate this possibility, an international team of astronomers observed three interacting twin disc systems using the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). Their findings show that due to their dense stellar environments, gravitational encounters between early-stage star systems play a significant role in their evolution.
Multiple star systems are very common in the Milky Way. While most of these systems are binary systems consisting of two stars, others contain three, four, or even six stars. These systems tend to be pretty stable since unstable systems tend to break apart or merge fairly quickly, but sometimes you can get a kind of meta-stable system. One that lasts long enough for stars to evolve while still being stable in the end. And that end could be a supernova.
Millions of stars that can grow up to 620 million miles in diameter, known as ‘red giants,’ exist in our galaxy, but it has been speculated for a while that there are some that are possibly much smaller. Now a team of astronomers at the University of Sydney have discovered several in this category and have published their findings in the journal Nature Astronomy.
“It’s like finding Wally… we were extremely lucky to find about 40 slimmer red giants, hidden in a sea of normal ones. The slimmer red giants are either smaller in size or less massive than normal red giants.”
About 97% of all stars in our Universe are destined to end their lives as white dwarf stars, which represents the final stage in their evolution. Like neutron stars, white dwarfs form after stars have exhausted their nuclear fuel and undergo gravitational collapse, shedding their outer layers to become super-compact stellar remnants. This will be the fate of our Sun billions of years from now, which will swell up to become a red giant before losing its outer layers.
Unlike neutron stars, which result from more massive stars, white dwarfs were once about eight times the mass of our Sun or lighter. For scientists, the density and gravitational force of these objects is an opportunity to study the laws of physics under some of the most extreme conditions imaginable. According to new research led by researchers from Caltech, one such object has been found that is both the smallest and most massive white dwarf ever seen.
In the past few decades, the study of extrasolar planets has grown by leaps and bounds, with the confirmation of over 4000 exoplanets. With so many planets available for study, the focus of exoplanet-researchers is shifting from discovery to characterization. In the coming years, new technologies and next-generation telescopes will also enable Direct Imaging studies, which will vastly improve our understanding of exoplanet atmospheres.
To facilitate this process, astronomers will rely on costly technologies like coronagraphs and starshades, which block out the light of a star so any planets orbiting it will become more visible. However, according to a new study by an international team of astronomers and cosmologists, eclipsing binary stars could provide all the shading that’s needed to directly image planets orbiting them.
In the past, the number of known exoplanets has exploded, with 4093 confirmed detections so far (and another 4,727 candidates awaiting confirmation). With the discovery of so many planets that are dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of light years away, a great deal of attention has understandably been directed to our nearest stellar neighbors. Could planets be right next door, with the possibility of life being there as well?
While a potentially-habitable planet was recently discovered around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b), Alpha Centauri remains something of a question mark. But thanks to a recent study from the Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT), we might be getting closer to determining if this neighboring system supports life. In a twist, the study revealed that one of the stars in the binary system is more likely to be habitable than the other.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.