A Rare Opportunity to Watch a Blue Straggler Forming

A unique and enigmatic variety of stars known as blue stragglers appear to defy the normal stellar aging process. Discovered in globular clusters, they appear much younger than the rest of the stellar population. Since their discovery in 1953, astronomers have been asking the question: how do these stars regain their youth?

For years, two theories have persisted. The first theory suggests that two stars collide, forming a single more massive star. The second theory proposes that blue stragglers emerge from binary pairs. As the more massive star evolves and expands, it blows material onto the smaller star. In both theories, the star grows steadily more massive and bluer – it regains its youth.

But now, a surprising finding may lend credence to the second theory. Astronomers at the Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Center in Poland recently observed a blue straggler caught in the midst of forming!

The binary system that was studied, known as M55-V60, is located within the globular cluster M55. Dr. Michal Rozyczka, one of the research scientists on the project, told Universe Today, “The system is a showcase example of a blue straggler formed via the theoretically predicted peaceful mass exchange between its components.”

The team used both photometric (the overall light from the system) and spectroscopic (the light spread out into a range of wavelengths) observations. The photometric data revealed the light curve – the change in brightness due to one star passing in front of the other – of the system. This provided evidence that the astronomers were looking at a binary system.

From the spectroscopic data, shifts in wavelength reveal the velocity (along the line of sight) of a source. The research team noted that the system’s center of mass was moving with respect to the binary system. This will occur in a semi-detached binary system, where mass transfers from one star to the other. As it does this, the center of mass will follow the mass-transfer.

From both photometric and spectroscopic observations (which covered more than 10 years!) the team was able to verify that this object is not only a binary, but a semi-detached binary, residing at the edge of M55.

An artist's conception of how a blue straggler may form from a binary system. Credit:NASA/ESA
An artist’s conception of how a blue straggler may form from a binary system. Credit: NASA/ESA

“The system is semi-detached with the less massive (secondary) component filling its Roche lobe,” explained Dr. Rozyczka. “The secondary has a tearlike shape, with the tip of the tear directed toward the more massive primary. A stream of gas flows out of the tip along a curved path and hits the primary.”

How do we know that it is in fact a blue straggler? The simple answer is that the secondary star, with is gaining mass, appears bluer than normal. This blue straggler is clearly in the process of forming. It is the second observation of such a formation, with the first being V228 in the globular cluster: 47 Tuc.

This research verifies that semi-detached binaries are a viable formation mechanism for blue stragglers. The binary was discovered by happenstance, in a project aimed at determining accurate ages and distances of nearby clusters. It’s certainly a surprising result from the survey.

The results will be published in Acta Astronomica, a peer-reviewed scientific journal located in Poland (preprint available here).


Hubble Finds “Oddball” Stars in Milky Way Hub

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to peer deep into the central bulge of our galaxy have found a population of rare and unusual stars. Dubbed “blue stragglers”, these stars seem to defy the aging process, appearing to be much younger than they should be considering where they are located. Previously known to exist within ancient globular clusters, blue stragglers have never been seen inside our galaxy’s core – until now.

The stars were discovered following a seven-day survey in 2006 called SWEEPS – the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search – that used Hubble to search a section of the central portion of our Milky Way galaxy, looking for the presence of Jupiter-sized planets transiting their host stars. During the search, which examined 180,000 stars, Hubble spotted 42 blue stragglers.

Of the 42 it’s estimated that 18 to 37 of them are genuine.

What makes blue stragglers such an unusual find? For one thing, stars in the galactic hub should appear much older and cooler… aging Sun-like stars and old red dwarfs. Scientists believe that the central bulge of the Milky Way stopped making new stars billions of years ago. So what’s with these hot, blue, youthful-looking “oddballs”? The answer may lie in their formation.

Artist's concept of a blue straggler pair. NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

A blue straggler may start out as a smaller member of a binary pair of stars. Over time the larger star ages and gets even bigger, feeding material onto the smaller one. This fuels fusion in the smaller star which then grows hotter, making it shine brighter and bluer – thus appearing similar to a young star.

However they were formed, just finding the blue stragglers was no simple task. The stars’ orbits around the galactic core had to be determined through a confusing mix of foreground stars within a very small observation area. The region of the sky Hubble studied was no larger than the width of a fingernail held at arm’s length! Still, within that small area Hubble could see over 250,000 stars. Incredible.

“Only the superb image quality and stability of Hubble allowed us to make this measurement in such a crowded field.”

– Lead author Will Clarkson, Indiana University in Bloomington and the University of California in Los Angeles

The discovery of these rare stars will help astronomers better understand star formation in the Milky Way’s hub and thus the evolution of our galaxy as a whole.

Read more on the Hubble News Center.

Image credit: NASAESA, W. Clarkson (Indiana University and UCLA), and K. Sahu (STScI)

Blue Stragglers Can Be Either Vampires or Stellar Bad-Boys

Messier 30, from HST’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Credit: NASA, ESA and Francesco Ferraro (University of Bologna

Blue stragglers are stars that stay on the main sequence longer than expected. They even appear to regress from “old age” back to a hotter and brighter “youth,” gaining a new lease on life in the process. Astronomers have thought blue stragglers were “vampires” that suck fresh hydrogen from companion stars to heat up and maintain their youthfulness. But now there appears to be two kinds of blue stragglers. In addition to the vampires, there are also the bad-boys: these blue stragglers steal mass from companion stars by crashing into their neighbors, as if they were in a stellar mosh pit. A team of astronomers used data from the Hubble Space Telescope to study the blue straggler star content in Messier 30, a swarm of several hundred thousand stars located about 28,000 light-years from Earth.

This wide-field image of the sky around the globular cluster Messier 30 was created from photographs forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. Located about 28 000 light-years away from Earth, this cluster -- a swarm of several hundred thousand stars -- is about 90 light-years across. The field of view is approximately 2.9 degrees across.  Credit: ESO and Digitized Sky Survey 2 Acknowledgment: Davide De Martin
This wide-field image of the sky around the globular cluster Messier 30 was created from photographs forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. Located about 28 000 light-years away from Earth, this cluster -- a swarm of several hundred thousand stars -- is about 90 light-years across. The field of view is approximately 2.9 degrees across. Credit: ESO and Digitized Sky Survey 2 Acknowledgment: Davide De Martin

Blue stragglers have been known since the early 1950s, but how they formed remains an astrophysical puzzle. Of all the stars in Messier 30, which formed about 13 billion years ago, a small fraction of them appeared to be significantly younger.

“It’s like seeing a few kids in a group photo of residents of a retirement home, and ask, ‘How did they get there?'” said Alison Sills, assistant professor at McMaster University. “In short, we seem to have found that there are two fountains of youth for stars.”

Previously, it was thought that that the less massive star in a binary system acts as a “vampire”, siphoning fresh hydrogen from its more massive companion star that allows the smaller star to heat up, growing bluer and hotter. However, the new study shows that some of the blue stragglers have instead been rejuvenated by a sort of “cosmic facelift”, courtesy of cosmic collisions. These stellar encounters are nearly head-on collisions in which the stars actually merge, mixing their nuclear fuel and re-stoking the fires of nuclear fusion. Merged stars and binary systems would both be about twice the typical mass of individual stars in the cluster.
This illustration demonstrates the two ways that blue stragglers — or "rejuvenated" stars — in globular clusters form. Credit: NASA/ESA
“The observations, which agree with our models, demonstrate that blue stragglers formed by collisions have slightly different properties from those formed by vampirism. This provides a direct demonstration that the two formation scenarios are valid and that they are both operating simultaneously in this cluster,” said Sills, who was part of an international steam that made the findings.

Using data from the now-retired Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) aboard Hubble, astronomers found that these “straggling” stars are much more concentrated towards the center of the cluster than the average star.

The central regions of high density globular clusters are crowded neighborhoods where interactions between stars are nearly inevitable. Researchers conjecture that one or two billion years ago, Messier 30 underwent a major “core collapse” that started to throw stars towards the centre of the cluster, leading to a rapid increase in the density of stars. This event significantly increased the number of collisions among stars, and favored the formation of one of the families of blue stragglers. On the other hand, the increase of stellar crowding due to the collapse of the core also perturbed the twin systems, encouraging the vampirism phenomenon and thus forming the other family of blue stragglers.

The study will be published in the Dec. 24 issue of Nature.

Sources: ESA Hubble Information, Center, McMaster University University of Wisconsin/Madison