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

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

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

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

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Brown Dwarf Pairs Drift Apart in Old Age

An artist's conception of a brown dwarf. A new study identifies CK Vulpeculae as the remnant of a collison between a brown dwarf and a white dwarf. Image: By NASA/JPL-Caltech (http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/image/114) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
An artist's conception of a brown dwarf. Brown dwarfs are more massive than Jupiter but less massive than the smallest main sequence stars. Image: By NASA/JPL-Caltech (http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/image/114) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The only thing worse than drifting through space for an eternity is doing it alone. Observations with the Hubble Space Telescope show that brown dwarfs that once had companions suffer that fate. Binary brown dwarfs that were once bound to each other tend to drift apart as time passes.

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Vampire Stars Get Help from a Third Star to Feed

Artist’s impression composed of a star with a disc around it (a Be “vampire” star; foreground) and its companion star that has been stripped of its outer parts (background). Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Some stars are stuck in bad binary relationships. A massive primary star feeds on its smaller companion, sucking gas from the companion and adding it to its own mass while diminishing its unfortunate partner. These vampire stars are called Be stars, and up until now, astronomers thought they existed in binary relationships.

But new research shows that these stars are only able to feed on their diminutive neighbour because of a third star present in the system.

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Giant Tidal Waves are Crashing Onto the Surface of an Enormous Star

Illustration of waves breaking on a heartbeat star. Credit: Melissa Weiss, CfA

Binary star systems often appear as variable stars. When we can’t see the individual stars because they are either too close together or too far away, we can see the gradual brightening and dimming of a single point of light as the stars orbit each other. Sometimes if the stars are particularly close when they pass each other they can brighten in unusual ways. One example of this is known as a heartbeat star.

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Evidence for Modified Gravity Found in the Motions of Binary Stars

Artistic repesentation of a binary star system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With our continued failure to discover dark matter particles, it’s worth considering alternatives. While dark matter is the most widely supported model, the alternatives fall into two broad paths. One is that we should look to extended models of general relativity, such as conformal gravity. The other argues we should modify the very nature of Newtonian dynamics. The first approach tends to be popular with theorists since it focuses on an abstract theory in the same vein as Einstein’s original ideas. The second, often known as Modified Newtonian Dynamics, or MoND, tends to be more popular with observational astronomers.

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A Neutron Star is Unwinding a Companion Star

Artist impression of a star being stripped by its companion. Credit: Elisa Schösser

Close binary stars play several important roles in astronomy. For example, Type Ia supernovae, used to measure galactic distances, occur when a neutron star in a binary system reaches critical mass. These stars are also the source of x-ray binaries and microquasars, which help astronomers understand supermassive black holes and active galactic nuclei. But the evolutionary process of close binaries is still not entirely understood. That’s changing thanks in part to a new discovery of a close binary in its intermediate stage.

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Each Planetary Nebula is Unique. Why Do They Look So Different?

A large collage of planetary nebulas processed by Judy Schmidt. All are presented north up and at apparent size relative to one another. Colors are aesthetic choices, especially since most planetary nebulas are imaged with narrowband filters. Image Credits: NASA / ESA / Judy Schmidt

When it comes to cosmic eye candy, planetary nebulae are at the top of the candy bowl. Like fingerprints—or maybe fireworks displays—each one is different. What factors are at work to make them so unique from one another?

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These Stars are Already Merging, but Their Future Will Be Catastrophic

Artist's view of the contact binary that will eventually merge as black holes. Credit: UCL / J. daSilva

Close-orbiting binaries are a ticking time bomb. Over time they spiral ever closer to each other until they merge in a cataclysmic explosion such as a supernova. But in the middle of their story, things can get interesting. Some stars collapse into a white dwarf before merging with their partner, others edge so close to each other that their surfaces touch for a time, becoming contact binaries before finally colliding. But one newly discovered binary system will have a wild ride before its final demise.

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Binary Dwarf Stars Found Orbiting Each Other Every 20 Hours. They Were Once Almost Touching

Astronomers have spotted a pair of ultra-cool dwarf stars in a tight binary configuration. They rotate around one another in less than one Earth day. Image Credit: NASA/JPL Caltech

A team of astrophysicists has discovered a binary pair of ultra-cool dwarfs so close together that they look like a single star. They’re remarkable because they only take 20.5 hours to orbit each other, meaning their year is less than one Earth Day. They’re also much older than similar systems.

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