A Family Of Stars Torn Apart

It sometimes doesn’t take much to tear a family apart. A Christmas dinner gone wrong can do that. But for a family of stars to be torn apart, something really huge has to happen.

The dramatic break-up of a family of stars played itself out in the Orion Nebula, about 600 years ago. The Orion Nebula is one of the most studied objects in our galaxy. It’s an active star forming region, where much of the star birth is concealed behind clouds of dust. Advances in infrared and radio astronomy have allowed us to peer into the Nebula, and to watch a stellar drama unfolding.

This three-frame illustration shows how a grouping of stars can break apart, flinging the members into space. Panel 1: members of a multiple-star system orbiting each other. Panel 2: two of the stars move closer together in their orbits. Panel 3: the closely orbiting stars eventually either merge or form a tight binary. This event releases enough gravitational energy to propel all of the stars in the system outward, as shown in the third panel.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levy (STScI)

Over the last few decades, observations showed the two of the stars in our young family travelling off in different directions. In fact, they were travelling in opposite directions, and moving at very high speeds. Much higher than stars normally travel at. What caused it?

Astronomers were able to piece the story together by re-tracing the positions of both stars back 540 years. All those centuries ago, around the same time that it was dawning on humanity that Earth revolved around the Sun instead of the other way around, both of the speeding stars were in the same location. This suggested that the two were part of a star system that had broken up for some reason. But their combined energy didn’t add up.

Now, the Hubble has provided another clue to the whole story, by spotting a third runaway star. They traced the third star’s path back 540 years and found that it originated in the same location as the others. That location? An area near the center of the Orion Nebula called the Kleinmann-Low Nebula.

This composite image of the Kleinmann-Low Nebula, part of the Orion Nebula complex, is composed of several pointings of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in optical and near-infrared light. Infrared light allows to peer through the dust of the nebula and to see the stars therein. The revealed stars are shown with a bright red colour in the image. With this image, showing the central region of the Orion Nebula, scientists were looking for rogue planets and brown dwarfs. As side-effect they found a fast-moving runaway star. By ESA/Hubble, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57169218

The team behind these new results, led by Kevin Luhman of Penn State University, will release their findings in the March 20, 2017 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“The new Hubble observations provide very strong evidence that the three stars were ejected from a multiple-star system,” said Luhman. “Astronomers had previously found a few other examples of fast-moving stars that trace back to multiple-star systems, and therefore were likely ejected. But these three stars are the youngest examples of such ejected stars. They’re probably only a few hundred thousand years old. In fact, based on infrared images, the stars are still young enough to have disks of material leftover from their formation.”

Young stars have a disk of gas and dust around them called a protoplanetary disk. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The Orion Nebula could be surrounded by additional fledging stars that were ejected from it in the past and are now streaming away into space.” – Lead Researcher Kevin Luhman, Penn State University.

The three stars are travelling about 30 times faster than most of the Nebula’s other stellar inhabitants. Theory has predicted the phenomenon of these breakups in regions where newborn stars are crowded together. These gravitational back-and-forths are inevitable. “But we haven’t observed many examples, especially in very young clusters,” Luhman said. “The Orion Nebula could be surrounded by additional fledging stars that were ejected from it in the past and are now streaming away into space.”

The key to this mystery is the recently discovered third star. But this star, the so-called “source x”, was discovered by accident. Luhman is part of a team using the Hubble to hunt for free-floating planets in the Orion Nebula. A comparison of Hubble infrared images from 2015 with images from 1998 showed that source x had changed its position. This indicated that the star was moving at a speed of about 130,000 miles per hour.

The image by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows a grouping of young stars, called the Trapezium Cluster (center). The box just above the Trapezium Cluster outlines the location of the three stars. A close-up of the stars is top right. The birthplace of the multi-star system is marked “initial position.” Two of the stars — labeled BN, and “I,” for source I — were discovered decades ago. Source I is embedded in thick dust and cannot be seen. The third star, “x,” for source x, was recently discovered to have moved noticeably between 1998 and 2015, as shown in the inset image at bottom right.
Credits: NASA, ESA, K. Luhman (Penn State University), and M. Robberto (STScI)

Luhmann then re-traced source x’s path and it led to the same position as the other 3 runaway stars 540 years ago: the Kleinmann-Low Nebula.

According to Luhmann, the three stars were most likely ejected from their system due to gravitational fluctuations that should be common in a high-population area of newly-born stars. Two of the stars can come very close together, either forming a tight binary system or even merging. That throws the gravitational parameters of the system out of whack, and other stars can be ejected. The ejection of those stars can also cause fingers of matter to flow out of the system.

As we get more powerful telescopes operating in the infrared, we should be able to clarify exactly what happens in areas of intense star formation like the Orion Nebula and its embedded Kleinmann-Low Nebula. The James Webb Space Telescope should advance our understanding greatly. If that’s the case, then not only will the details of star birth and formation become much clearer, but so will the break up of young families of stars.

What Are Multiple Star Systems?

What Are Multiple Star Systems?


When we do finally learn the full truth about our place in the galaxy, and we’re invited to join the Galactic Federation of Planets, I’m sure we’ll always be seen as a quaint backwater world orbiting a boring single star.

The terrifying tentacle monsters from the nightmare tentacle world will gurgle horrifying, but clearly condescending comments about how we’ve only got a single star in the Solar System.

The beings of pure energy will remark how only truly enlightened civilizations can come from systems with at least 6 stars, insulting not only humanity, but also the horrifying tentacle monsters, leading to another galaxy spanning conflict.

Yes, we’ll always be making up for our stellar deficit in the eyes of aliens, or whatever those creepy blobs use for eyes.

What we lack in sophistication, however, we make up in volume. In our Milky Way, fully 2/3rds of star systems only have a single star. The last 1/3rd is made up of multiple star systems.

The Milky Way as seen from Devil's Tower, Wyoming. Image Credit: Wally Pacholka
The Milky Way as seen from Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. Image Credit: Wally Pacholka

We’re taking binary stars, triple star systems, even exotic 7 star systems. When you mix and match different types of stars in various Odd Couple stellar apartments, the results get interesting.

Consider our own Solar System, where the Sun and planets formed together out a cloud of gas and dust. Gravity collected material into the center of the Solar System, becoming the Sun, while the rest of the disk spun up faster and faster. Eventually our star ignited its fusion furnace, blasting out the rest of the stellar nebula.

But different stellar nebulae can lead to the formation of multiple stars instead. What you get depends on the mass of the cloud, and how fast it’s rotating.

Check out this amazing photograph of a multiple star system forming right now.

ALMA image of the L1448 IRS3B system, with two young stars at the center and a third distant from them. Spiral structure in the dusty disk surrounding them indicates instability in the disk, astronomers said. Credit: Bill Saxton, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NRAO/AUI/NSF
ALMA image of the L1448 IRS3B system, with two young stars at the center and a third distant from them. Spiral structure in the dusty disk surrounding them indicates instability in the disk, astronomers said. Credit: Bill Saxton, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NRAO/AUI/NSF

In this image, you can see three stars forming together, two at the center, about 60 astronomical units away from each other (60 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun), and then a third orbiting 183 AU away.

It’s estimated these stars are only 10,000 to 20,000 years old. This is one of the most amazing astronomy pictures I ever seen.

When you have two stars, that’s a binary system. If the stars are similar in mass to each other, then they orbit a common point of mass, known as the barycenter. If the stars are different masses, then it can appear that one star is orbiting the other, like a planet going around a star.

When you look up in the sky, many of the single stars you see are actually binary stars, and can be resolved with a pair of binoculars or a small telescope. For example, in a good telescope, Alpha Centauri can be resolved into two equally bright stars, with the much dimmer Proxima Centauri hanging out nearby.

The two bright stars are (left) Alpha Centauri and (right) Beta Centauri. The faint red star in the center of the red circle is Proxima Centauri. Credit: Skatebiker at English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The two bright stars are (left) Alpha Centauri and (right) Beta Centauri. The faint red star in the center of the red circle is Proxima Centauri. Credit: Skatebiker at English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

You have to be careful, though, sometimes stars just happen to be beside each other in the sky, but they’re not actually orbiting one another – this is known as an optical binary. It’s a trap.

Astronomers find that you can then get binary stars with a third companion orbiting around them. As long as the third star is far enough away, the whole system can be stable. This is a triple star system.

You can get two sets of binary stars orbiting each other, for a quadruple star system.

In fact, you can build up these combinations of stars up. For example, the star system Nu Scorpii has 7 stars in a single system. All happily orbiting one another for eons.

If stars remained unchanging forever, then this would be the end of our story. However, as we’ve discussed in other articles, stars change over time, bloating up as red giants, detonating as supernovae and turning into bizarre objects, like white dwarfs, neutron stars and even black holes. And when these occur in multiple star systems, well, watch the sparks fly.

There are a nearly infinite combinations you can have here: main sequence, red giant, white dwarf, neutron star, and even black holes. I don’t have time to go through all the combinations, but here are some highlights.

This artist’s impression shows VFTS 352 — the hottest and most massive double star system to date where the two components are in contact and sharing material. The two stars in this extreme system lie about 160 000 light-years from Earth in the Large Magellanic Cloud. This intriguing system could be heading for a dramatic end, either with the formation of a single giant star or as a future binary black hole. ESO/L. Calçada
VFTS 352 is the hottest and most massive double star system to date where the two components are in contact and sharing material. ESO/L. Calçada

For starters, binary stars can get so close they actually touch each other. This is known as a contact binary, where the two stars actually share material back and forth. But it gets even stranger.

When a main sequence star like our Sun runs out of hydrogen fuel in its core, it expands as a red giant, before cooling and becoming a white dwarf.

When a red giant is in a binary system, the distance and evolution of its stellar companion makes all the difference.

If the two stars are close enough, the red giant can pass material over to the other star. And if the red giant is large enough, it can actually engulf its companion. Imagine our Sun, orbiting within the atmosphere of a red giant star. Needless to say, that’s not healthy for any planets.

An even stranger contact binary happens when a red giant consumes a binary neutron star. This is known as a Thorne-Zytkow object. The neutron star spirals inward through the atmosphere of the red giant. When it reaches the core, it either becomes a black hole, gobbling up the red giant from within, or an even more massive neutron star. This is exceedingly rare, and only one candidate object has ever been observed.

A Type Ia supernova occurs when a white dwarf accretes material from a companion star until it exceeds the Chandrasekhar limit and explodes. By studying these exploding stars, astronomers can measure dark energy and the expansion of the universe. CfA scientists have found a way to correct for small variations in the appearance of these supernovae, so that they become even better standard candles. The key is to sort the supernovae based on their color. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss
A white dwarf accreting material from a companion star. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

When a binary pair is a white dwarf, the dead remnant of a star like our Sun, then material can transfer to the surface of the white dwarf, causing novae explosions. And if enough material is transferred, the white dwarf explodes as a Type 1A supernova.

If you’re a star that was unlucky enough to be born beside a very massive star, you can actually kicked off into space when it explodes as a supernova. In fact, there are rogue stars which such a kick, they’re on an escape trajectory from the entire galaxy, never to return.

If you have two neutron stars in a binary pair, they release energy in the form of gravitational waves, which causes them to lose momentum and spiral inward. Eventually they collide, becoming a black hole, and detonating with so much energy we can see the explosions billions of light-years away – a short-period gamma ray burst.

The combinations are endless.

How Earth could look with two suns. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Ariz.
How Earth could look with two suns. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Ariz.

It’s amazing to think what the night sky would look like if we were born into a multiple star system. Sometimes there would be several stars in the sky, other times just one. And rarely, there would be an actual night.

How would life be different in a multiple star system? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

In our next episode, we try to untangle this bizarre paradox. If the Universe is infinite, how did it start out as a singularity? That doesn’t make any sense.

We glossed over it in this episode, but one of the most interesting effects of multiple star systems are novae, explosions of stolen material on the surface of a white dwarf star. Learn more about it in this video.