Scientists Track How a Giant Wave Moved Through Our Galactic Backyard

Illustration: Radcliffe Wave model
This illustration shows how the Radcliffe Wave moves through the backyard of our sun (shown as a yellow dot). The white line represents the wave's current shape and motion. Magenta and green lines show how the wave is expected to move over time. (Credit: Ralf Konietzka, Alyssa Goodman and WorldWide Telescope via CfA)

Astronomers say there’s a wave rippling through our galactic neighborhood that’s playing a part in the birth and death of stars — and perhaps in Earth’s history as well.

The cosmic ripple, known as the Radcliffe Wave, was identified in astronomical data four years ago — but in a follow-up study published today by the journal Nature, a research team lays out fresh evidence that the wave is actually waving, like the wave that fans in a sports stadium create by taking turns standing up and sitting down.

“Similar to how fans in a stadium are being pulled back to their seats by the Earth’s gravity, the Radcliffe Wave oscillates due to the gravity of the Milky Way,” study lead author Ralf Konietzka, a researcher at Harvard and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, or CfA, said in a news release

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Polaris is the Closest, Brightest Cepheid Variable. Very Recently, Something Changed.

View from within the Polaris triple star system; artist's rendering. The North Star is labeled Polaris A. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST, G. Bacon (STScI)

When you look up in the night sky and find your way to the North Star, you are looking at Polaris. Not only is it the brightest star in the Ursa Minor constellation (the Little Dipper), but its position relative to the north celestial pole (less than 1° away) makes it useful for orienteering and navigation. Since the age of modern astronomy, scientists have understood that the star is a binary system consisting of an F-type yellow supergiant (Polaris Aa) and a smaller main-sequence yellow dwarf (Polaris B). Further observations revealed that Polaris Aa is a classic Cepheid variable, a stellar class that pulses regularly.

For most of the 20th century, records indicate that the pulsation period has been increasing while the pulsation amplitude has been declining. But recently, this changed as the pulsation period started getting shorter while the amplitude of the velocity variations stopped increasing. According to a new study by Guillermo Torres, an astronomer with the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), these behaviors could be attributed to long-term changes related to the binary nature of the system, where the two stars get closer to each other, and the secondary perturbs the atmosphere of the primary.

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