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.
Astronomy can be a tricky business, owing to the sheer distances involved. Luckily, astronomers have developed a number of tools and strategies over the years that help them to study distant objects in greater detail. In addition to ground-based and space-based telescopes, there’s also the technique known as gravitational lensing, where the gravity of an intervening object is used to magnify light coming from a more distant object.
Recently, a team of Canadian astronomers used this technique to observe an eclipsing binary millisecond pulsar located about 6500 light years away. According to a study produced by the team, they observed two intense regions of radiation around one star (a brown dwarf) to conduct observations of the other star (a pulsar) – which happened to be the highest resolution observations in astronomical history.
The study, titled “Pulsar emission amplified and resolved by plasma lensing in an eclipsing binary“, recently appeared in the journal Nature. The study was led by Robert Main, a PhD astronomy student at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, and included members from the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
The system they observed is known as the “Black Widow Pulsar”, a binary system that consists of a brown dwarf and a millisecond pulsar orbiting closely to each other. Because of their close proximity to one another, scientists have determined that the pulsar is actively siphoning material from its brown dwarf companion and will eventually consume it. Discovered in 1988, the name “Black Widow” has since come to be applied to other similar binaries.
The observations made by the Canadian team were made possible thanks to the rare geometry and characteristics of the binary – specifically, the “wake” or comet-like tail of gas that extends from the brown dwarf to the pulsar. As Robert Main, the lead author of the paper, explained in a Dunlap Institute press release:
“The gas is acting like a magnifying glass right in front of the pulsar. We are essentially looking at the pulsar through a naturally occurring magnifier which periodically allows us to see the two regions separately.”
Like all pulsars, the “Black Widow” is a rapidly rotating neutron star that spins at a rate of over 600 times a second. As it spins, it emits beams of radiation from its two polar hotspots, which have a strobing effect when observed from a distance. The brown dwarf, meanwhile, is about one third the diameter of the Sun, is located roughly two million km from the pulsar and orbits it once every 9 hours.
Because they are so close together, the brown dwarf is tidally-locked to the pulsar and is blasted by strong radiation. This intense radiation heats one side of the relatively cool brown dwarf to temperatures of about 6000 °C (10,832 °F), the same temperature as our Sun. Because of the radiation and gases passing between them, the emissions coming from the pulsar interfere with each other, which makes them difficult to study.
However, astronomers have long understood that these same regions could be used as “interstellar lenses” that could localize pulsar emission regions, thus allowing for their study. In the past, astronomers have only been able to resolve emission components marginally. But thanks to the efforts of Main and his colleagues, they were able observing two intense radiation flares located 20 kilometers apart.
In addition to being an unprecedentedly high-resolution observation, the results of this study could provide insight into the nature of the mysterious phenomena known as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). As Main explained:
“Many observed properties of FRBs could be explained if they are being amplified by plasma lenses. The properties of the amplified pulses we detected in our study show a remarkable similarity to the bursts from the repeating FRB, suggesting that the repeating FRB may be lensed by plasma in its host galaxy.”
It is an exciting time for astronomers, where improved instruments and methods are not only allowing for more accurate observations, but also providing data that could resolve long-standing mysteries. It seems that every few days, fascinating new discoveries are being made!
Eclipsing binary star systems are relatively common in our Universe. To the casual observer, these systems look like a single star, but are actually composed of two stars orbiting closely together. The study of these systems offers astronomers an opportunity to directly measure the fundamental properties (i.e. the masses and radii) of these systems respective stellar components.
Recently, a team of Brazilian astronomers observed a rare sight in the Milky Way – an eclipsing binary composed of a white dwarf and a low-mass brown dwarf. Even more unusual was the fact that the white dwarf’s life cycle appeared to have been prematurely cut short by its brown dwarf companion, which caused its early death by slowly siphoning off material and “starving” it to death.
For the sake of their study, the team conducted observations of a binary star system between 2005 and 2013 using the Pico dos Dias Observatory in Brazil. This data was then combined with information from the William Herschel Telescope, which is located in the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on the island of La Palma. This system, known as of HS 2231+2441, consists of a white dwarf star and a brown dwarf companion.
White dwarfs, which are the final stage of intermediate or low-mass stars, are essentially what is left after a star has exhausted its hydrogen and helium fuel and blown off its outer layers. A brown dwarf, on the other hand, is a substellar object that has a mass which places it between that of a star and a planet. Finding a binary system consisting of both objects together in the same system is something astronomers don’t see everyday.
As Leonardo Andrade de Almeida explained in a FAPESP press release, “This type of low-mass binary is relatively rare. Only a few dozen have been observed to date.”
This particular binary pair consists of a white dwarf that is between twenty to thirty percent the Sun’s mass – 28,500 K (28,227 °C; 50,840 °F) – while the brown dwarf is roughly 34-36 times that of Jupiter. This makes HS 2231+2441 the least massive eclipsing binary system studied to date.
In the past, the primary (the white dwarf) was a normal star that evolved faster than its companion since it was more massive. Once it exhausted its hydrogen fuel, its formed a helium-burning core. At this point, the star was on its way to becoming a red giant, which is what happens when Sun-like stars exit their main sequence phase. This would have been characterized by a massive expansion, with its diameter exceeding 150 million km (93.2 million mi).
At this point, Almeida and his colleagues concluded that it began interacting gravitationally with its secondary (the brown dwarf). Meanwhile, the brown dwarf began to be attracted and engulfed by the primary’s atmosphere (i.e. its envelop), which caused it it lose orbital angular momentum. Eventually, the powerful force of attraction exceeded the gravitational force keeping the envelop anchored to its star.
Once this happened, the primary star’s outer layers began to be stripped away, exposing its helium core and sending massive amounts of matter to the brown dwarf. Because of this loss of mass, the remnant effectively died, becoming a white dwarf. The brown dwarf then began orbiting its white dwarf primary with a short orbital period of just three hours. As Almeida explained:
“This transfer of mass from the more massive star, the primary object, to its companion, which is the secondary object, was extremely violent and unstable, and it lasted a short time… The secondary object, which is now a brown dwarf, must also have acquired some matter when it shared its envelope with the primary object, but not enough to become a new star.”
This situation is similar to what astronomers noticed this past summer while studying the binary star system known as WD 1202-024. Here too, a brown dwarf companion was discovered orbiting a white dwarf primary. What’s more, the team responsible for the discovery indicated that the brown dwarf was likely pulled closer to the white dwarf once it entered its Red Giant Branch (RGB) phase.
At this point, the brown dwarf stripped the primary of its atmosphere, exposing the white dwarf remnant core. Similarly, the interaction of the primary with a brown dwarf companion caused premature stellar death. The fact that two such discoveries have happened within a short period of time is quite fortuitous. Considering the age of the Universe (which is roughly 13.8 billion years old), dead objects can only be formed in binary systems.
In the Milky Way alone, about 50% of low-mass stars exist as part of a binary system while high mass stars exist almost exclusively in binary pairs. In these cases, roughly three-quarters will interact in some way with a companion – exchanging mass, accelerating their rotations, and eventually en merging.
As Almeida indicated, the study of this binary system and those like it could seriously help astronomers understand how hot, compact objects like white dwarfs are formed. “Binary systems offer a direct way of measuring the main parameter of a star, which is its mass,” he said. “That’s why binary systems are crucial to our understanding of the life cycle of stars.”
It has only been in recent years that low-mass white dwarf stars were discovered. Finding binary systems where they coexist with brown dwarfs – essentially, failed stars – is another rarity. But with every new discovery, the opportunities to study the range of possibilities in our Universe increases.
Two stars have been discovered locked in a mutually-destructive embrace, a relationship that will end with both losing their individual identities as they spiral increasingly closer, eventually becoming a single hot body that is destined to quickly fizzle out.
No, we’re not talking about the cover of a Hollywood tabloid, these are two white dwarf stars 1,140 light-years away in the constellation Leo, and they are the second such pair of their kind ever to be discovered.
Astronomers at the University of Warwick in the UK have identified a binary pair of white dwarf stars named CSS 41177 that circle each other closely in an eclipsing orbit. What’s particularly unique about this pair is that both stars seem to have been stripped down to their helium layers – a feature that points at an unusually destructive history for both.
White dwarfs typically form from larger stars that have burned through their hydrogen and helium, leaving behind hot, dense cores composed of carbon and oxygen – after going through a bloated red giant phase, that is. But when stars are very close to each other, such as in the case of binary pairs, the expanding hydrogen shell from the larger one undergoing its red giant phase is stripped away by its smaller companion, which absorbs the material. Without the compression and heat from the hydrogen layer the first star cannot fuse its helium into heavier elements and is left as a helium white dwarf.
When the time comes for the smaller star to expand into a red giant, its outer layers are likewise torn away by the first star. But the first star cannot use that hydrogen, and so both are left as helium white dwarfs. The unused hydrogen is ultimately lost to the system.
It’s a case of a destructive codependent relationship on a stellar scale.
The white dwarf stars in CSS 41177 will eventually merge together in about a billion years, gaining enough mass in the process to begin fusing their combined helium, thus becoming a single star called a hot subdwarf. This period could last another 100 million years.
This discovery was made using data gathered from the Liverpool Telescope in the Canary Islands and the Gemini Telescope on Hawaii. The paper was accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal and is entitled A deeply eclipsing detached double helium white dwarf binary. (Authors: S. G. Parsons, T. R. Marsh, B. T. Gaensicke, A. J. Drake, D. Koester.)
The image above was created by Andrew Taylor, a.k.a. digital_drew. He specializes in starry-night landscapes as seen from speculative planets orbiting familiar stars in our galaxy and was kind enough to provide me with this custom binary pair image. Check out his photostream for more!