Split-Personality Pulsar Switches From Radio To Gamma-Rays

Another snapshot of our strange universe: astronomers recently caught a pulsar — a particular kind of dense star — switch off its radio beacon while powerful gamma rays brightened fivefold.

“It’s almost as if someone flipped a switch, morphing the system from a lower-energy state to a higher-energy one,” stated lead researcher Benjamin Stappers, an astrophysicist at the University of Manchester, England.

“The change appears to reflect an erratic interaction between the pulsar and its companion, one that allows us an opportunity to explore a rare transitional phase in the life of this binary.”

The binary system includes pulsar J1023+0038 and another star that has a fifth of the mass of the sun. They’re close orbiting, spinning around each other every 4.8 hours. This means the companion’s days are numbered, because the pulsar is pulling it apart.

In NASA’s words, here is what is going on:

In J1023, the stars are close enough that a stream of gas flows from the sun-like star toward the pulsar. The pulsar’s rapid rotation and intense magnetic field are responsible for both the radio beam and its powerful pulsar wind. When the radio beam is detectable, the pulsar wind holds back the companion’s gas stream, preventing it from approaching too closely. But now and then the stream surges, pushing its way closer to the pulsar and establishing an accretion disk.

Gas in the disk becomes compressed and heated, reaching temperatures hot enough to emit X-rays. Next, material along the inner edge of the disk quickly loses orbital energy and descends toward the pulsar. When it falls to an altitude of about 50 miles (80 km), processes involved in creating the radio beam are either shut down or, more likely, obscured.

The inner edge of the disk probably fluctuates considerably at this altitude. Some of it may become accelerated outward at nearly the speed of light, forming dual particle jets firing in opposite directions — a phenomenon more typically associated with accreting black holes. Shock waves within and along the periphery of these jets are a likely source of the bright gamma-ray emission detected by Fermi.

You can read more about the research in the Astrophysical Journal or in preprint version on Arxiv.

Source: NASA

Young Planets Migrated In Double-Star Systems, Model Shows

Binary star systems are downright dangerous due to their complex gravitational interactions that can easily grind a planet to pieces. So how is it that we have found a few planets in these Tattooine-like environments?

Research led by the University of Bristol show that most planets formed far away from their central stars and then migrated in at some point in their history, according to research collected concerning Kepler-34b and other exoplanets.

The scientists did “computer simulations of the early stages of planet formation around the binary stars using a sophisticated model that calculates the effect of gravity and physical collisions on and between one million planetary building blocks,” stated the university.

“They found that the majority of these planets must have formed much further away from the central binary stars and then migrated to their current location.”

You can read more about the research in Astrophysical Journal Letters. It was led by Bristol graduate student Stefan Lines with participation from advanced research fellow and computational astrophysicst Zoe Lienhardt, among other collaborators.

Cosmology in the Year 1 Trillion

[/caption]Much of what is known today about the birth of the cosmos comes from astronomical observations at high redshifts. Due to the accelerated expansion of the Universe, however, astronomers of the future will be unable to use the same methods. In a trillion years or so, our own Milky Way galaxy will have merged with the Andromeda galaxy, creating a new galaxy that has been quaintly termed “Milkomeda.” All of our other galactic neighbors will have long disappeared beyond our cosmological horizon. Even the CMB will have been stretched into invisibility. So how will future Milkomedans study cosmology? How will they figure out where the Universe came from?

According to a paper published by the Harvard-Smithsonan Center for Astrophysics, these astronomers will be able to decode the secrets of the cosmos by studying stellar runaways from their own galaxy: so-called hypervelocity stars (HVSs). HVSs originate in binary or triple-star systems that wander just a hair too close to their galaxy’s central supermassive black hole. Astronomers believe that one star from the system is captured by the black hole, while the others are sent careening out of the galaxy at colossally high speeds. HVS ejections occur relatively rarely (approximately once every 10,000-100,000 years) and should continue to occur for trillions of years, given the large density of stars in the galactic center.

So how would HVSs help future astronomers study the origins of the Universe? First, these scientists would have to locate an ejected star beyond the gravitational boundary of Milkomeda. Once beyond this boundary (after about 2 billion years of travel), the acceleration of a HVS could be attributed entirely to the Hubble flow. With advanced technology, future astronomers could use the Doppler shift of its spectral lines and thus deduce Einstein’s cosmological constant and the acceleration of the Universe at large. Next, scientists could use mathematical models of galaxy formation and collapse to determine the Universe’s mass density and age at the time that Milkomeda formed. From their knowledge of the galaxy’s age, they would be able to tell when the Big Bang occurred.

How Much Do Binary Stars Shape Planetary Nebulae?

A Collectionf of Planetary Nebulae from the HST

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Planetary nebulae come in a dazzling array of shapes, from spherical shells of gas, to blobby structures barely containing symmetry at all. Controversy has surrounded the cause for this diversity. Could it be magnetic fields, high rotation rates, unseen companions, or something else entirely? Recently, there has been a growing consensus that binary companions are the main culprit for the most irregular of these nebulae, but exploring the connection is only possible with a statistically significant sample of planetary nebulae with binary cores can be found, giving hints as to what properties they may, or may not, create.

Currently, astronomers recognize over 3,000 planetary nebulae within our own galaxy. Only ~40 are known to harbor binary stars at their core but astronomers are uncertain of just how many truly due. The difficulty lies in the amount of time it takes to search for a companion. Typically, companions can be discovered with spectroscopic measurements in the same way astronomers discover planets by detecting a wobble. Alternatively, binary companions can be teased out through eclipses but both methods require frequent monitoring and, until recently, were best suited for single target studies.

With the recent popularity of wide field survey missions, possibilities to detect more binary companions has increased greatly. These surveys are ideally suited for capturing eclipses or microlensing events. In each case, they will preferentially discover companions with tight orbits and short orbital periods which are suspected to have the greatest effect on the shape of the nebulae.

Stars that orbit close together are expected to have a strong effect because, as the primary star enters its post-main sequence lifetime, it is likely that the secondary star will become engulfed in the envelope of the primary, essentially sharing the outer layers. This creates large differences in density along the equator which leads to uneven ejection of the material as the primary star sheds its outer layers, forming the nebula. These temporary overdensities would serve to funnel material and could be responsible for the presence of polar outflows or jets.

NGC 6326 Credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA
NGC 6326 Credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA

A recent study has added two more planetary nebulae to the list of those with known binary centers: NGC 6326 (shown right) and NGC 6778. Collimated outflows and jets were discovered in both cases. The authors also note that both nebulae have filaments with low ionization. Such structures have been noted previously, but their cause has remained uncertain. A 2009 study suggested that they may be the result of tight binaries, a hypothesis that is strengthened by the the new discovery. The overall shape of NGC 6326 is mostly elliptical while NGC 6778 is bipolar.

T-Dwarf Stars Finally Reveal Their Mysterious Secrets

Eclipsing Binaries

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Astronomers have recently discovered an exotic star system which has shed some light on the mass and age of one of the systems rare stellar components. Using data from World’s largest optical telescope, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, the team has had a new insight into the properties of the unusual T-dwarf stars. Its believed there are around 200 of these stars in our Galaxy but this is the first one to be discovered as part of a binary star system which has given astronomers an extra special insight into their properties.

The system, that has been dubbed the ‘Rosetta Stone’ for T-dwarf stars, was studied by a team led by Dr Avril Day-Jones of the Universidad de Chile and included Dr David Pinfield of the University of Hertfordshire and other astronomers from the University of Montreal. They first identified the dwarf star, which has a temperature of around 1000 degrees compared to our Sun at 5500 degrees, in the UKIRT Infra-red Deep Sky Survey while searching for the coolest objects in the Galaxy. They found to their surprise, that the T-dwarf star was joined by a companion blue star, later revealed to be a cool white dwarf. The pair have now been given the ‘memorable‘ name of 1459+0857 A and B.

The binary system is the first of its type to be discovered as, whilst both types of stars have been identified individually, they have never been found gravitationally bound to one another. The two stars are about 0.25 light years apart (compared to our nearest star at just over 4 light years away) but despite the distance and the weak gravitational interaction between the stars, they remain in orbit and will do so until the two stars slowly fizzle out to a dark and cool death.

The T-dwarf stars are an exotic breed which lie on the border between a star and a planet, much like our own Solar System giant, the planet Jupiter. They are not massive enough for nuclear reactions to take place in the core so from their birth, they simply cool and fade. The presence of methane too is a pointer to their cool nature as it gets destroyed at higher temperatures and so is not found in fully fledged stars. The companion star, the white dwarf, is a star at the end of its life. When average stars like the Sun die, their outer layers will blow off into space, leaving behind a planetary nebula and a cooling, dying stellar core. With the new binary system, the white dwarf star lost a significant amount of matter and so its gravitational pull weakened, slowly increasing the distance between the two companions. The planetary nebula has long since dissipated and from looking at the white dwarf, we can tell that this weak, fragile system has existed for several billions of year.

The discovery of this binary system has allowed the team to test the physics of cool stellar atmospheres that exist on these strange, failed stars and to measure its mass and age, providing an opportunity for astronomers to study other low mass objects. “The discovery is an important stepping stone to improve astronomers ability to measure the properities of low-mass star like objects (brown dwarfs). ” Dr Pinfield told Universe Today. “Only be accurately measuring these properties will we be able to understand how these objects form and evolve over time. Brown dwarfs are just as numerous as stars in the Milky Way, but their nature is not yet well understood. As such, this new discovery is helping astronomers interpret an important but mysterious population of objects that are quite common in our Galactic backyard.”

Mark Thompson is a writer and the astronomy presenter on the BBC One Show. See his website, The People’s Astronomer, and you can follow him on Twitter, @PeoplesAstro

Podcast: Binary Stars

Artists illustration of a cataclysmic variable
Artist's illustration of a cataclysmic variable

Did you know that our Solar System is a rarity with its single star? Astronomers believe that most star systems out there actually contain 2 or more stars – imagine seeing a sky with 4 suns. These binary and multiple star systems are a great target for new astronomers, and the dynamics of multiple stars keep astrophysicists busy too. Let’s take a look at what it would be like to live on Tatooine – a good movie version of a planet orbiting binary stars.

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Binary Stars show notes and transcript.