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.

What is a Nova?

What Is A Nova?

There are times when I really wish astronomers could take their advanced modern knowledge of the cosmos and then go back and rewrite all the terminology so that they make more sense. For example, dark matter and dark energy seem like they’re linked, and maybe they are, but really, they’re just mysteries.

Is dark matter actually matter, or just a different way that gravity works over long distances? Is dark energy really energy, or is it part of the expansion of space itself. Black holes are neither black, nor holes, but that doesn’t stop people from imagining them as dark tunnels to another Universe.  Or the Big Bang, which makes you think of an explosion.

Another category that could really use a re-organizing is the term nova, and all the related objects that share that term: nova, supernova, hypernova, meganova, ultranova. Okay, I made those last couple up.

I guess if you go back to the basics, a nova is a star that momentarily brightens up. And a supernova is a star that momentarily brightens up… to death. But the underlying scenario is totally different.

New research shows that some old stars known as white dwarfs might be held up by their rapid spins, and when they slow down, they explode as Type Ia supernovae. Thousands of these "time bombs" could be scattered throughout our Galaxy. In this artist's conception, a supernova explosion is about to obliterate an orbiting Saturn-like planet.   Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)
In this artist’s conception, a supernova explosion is about to obliterate an orbiting Saturn-like planet. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

As we’ve mentioned in many articles already, a supernova commonly occurs when a massive star runs out of fuel in its core, implodes, and then detonates with an enormous explosion.  There’s another kind of supernova, but we’ll get to that later.

A plain old regular nova, on the other hand, happens when a white dwarf – the dead remnant of a Sun-like star – absorbs a little too much material from a binary companion. This borrowed hydrogen undergoes fusion, which causes it to brighten up significantly, pumping up to 100,000 times more energy off into space.

Imagine a situation where you’ve got two main sequence stars like our Sun orbiting one another in a tight binary system. Over the course of billions of years, one of the stars runs out of fuel in its core, expands as a red giant, and then contracts back down into a white dwarf. It’s dead.

Some time later, the second star dies, and it expands as a red giant. So now you’ve got a red dwarf and a white dwarf in this binary system, orbiting around and around each other, and material is streaming off the red giant and onto the smaller white dwarf.

Illustration of a white dwarf feeding off its companion star Credit: ESO / M. Kornmesser
Illustration of a white dwarf feeding off its companion star Credit: ESO / M. Kornmesser

This material piles up on the surface of the white dwarf forming a cosy blanket of stolen hydrogen. When the surface temperature reaches 20 million kelvin, the hydrogen begins to fuse, as if it was the core of a star. Metaphorically speaking, its skin catches fire. No, wait, even better. Its skin catches fire and then blasts off into space.

Over the course of a few months, the star brightens significantly in the sky. Sometimes a star that required a telescope before suddenly becomes visible with the unaided eye. And then it slowly fades again, back to its original brightness.

Some stars do this on a regular basis, brightening a few times a century. Others must clearly be on a longer cycle, we’ve only seen them do it once.

Astronomers think there are about 40 novae a year across the Milky Way, and we often see them in other galaxies.

Tycho Brahe: He lived like a sage and died like a fool. He also created his own cosmological model, the Tychonic system.

The term “nova” was first coined by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in 1572, when he observed a supernova with his telescope. He called it the “nova stella”, or new star, and the name stuck. Other astronomers used the term to describe any star that brightened up in the sky, before they even really understood the causes.

During a nova event, only about 5% of the material gathered on the white dwarf is actually consumed in the flash of fusion. Some is blasted off into space, and some of the byproducts of fusion pile up on its surface.

Tycho's Supernova Remnant. Credit: Spitzer, Chandra and Calar Alto Telescopes.
Tycho’s Supernova Remnant. Credit: Spitzer, Chandra and Calar Alto Telescopes.

Over millions of years, the white dwarf can collect enough material that carbon fusion can occur. At 1.4 times the mass of the Sun, a runaway fusion reaction overtakes the entire white dwarf star, releasing enough energy to detonate it in a matter of seconds.

If a regular nova is a quick flare-up of fusion on the surface of a white dwarf star, then this event is a super nova, where the entire star explodes from a runaway fusion reaction.

You might have guessed, this is known as a Type 1a supernova, and astronomers use these explosions as a way to measure distance in the Universe, because they always explode with the same amount of energy.

Hmm, I guess the terminology isn’t so bad after all: nova is a flare up, and a supernova is a catastrophic flare up to death… that works.

Now you know. A nova occurs when a dead star steals material from a binary companion, and undergoes a momentary return to the good old days of fusion. A Type Ia supernova is that final explosion when a white dwarf has gathered its last meal.

‘Cosmic Zombie’ Star Triggered This Explosion In Nearby Galaxy

It might be a bad idea to get close to dead stars. Like a White Walker from Game of Thrones, this “cosmic zombie” white dwarf star was dangerous even though it was just a corpse of a star like our own. The result from this violence is still visible in the Spitzer Space Telescope picture you see above.

Astronomers believe the giant star was shedding material (a common phenomenon in older stars), which fell on to the white dwarf star. As the gas built up on the white dwarf over time, the mass became unstable and the dwarf exploded. What’s left is still lying in a pool of gas about 160,000 light-years away from us.

“It’s kind of like being a detective,” stated Brian Williams of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who led the research. “We look for clues in the remains to try to figure out what happened, even though we weren’t there to see it.”

This explosion in the Large Magellanic Cloud — one of the closest satellite galaxies to Earth — is known as a Type 1a supernova, but it’s a rare breed of that kind. Type 1as are best known as “standard candles” because their explosions have a consistent luminosity. Knowing how luminous the supernova type is allows astronomers to estimate distance based on its apparent brightness; the fainter the supernova is, the further away it is.

Most Type 1as happen when two orbiting white dwarfs smash into each other, but this scenario is more akin to something that Earthlings saw in 1604. Informally called Kepler’s supernova, because it was discovered by astronomer Johannes Kepler, astronomers believe this arose from a red giant and white dwarf interaction. The evidence left for this conclusion showed the supernova leftovers embedded in dust and gas.

Investigators have submitted their results to the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

This Supernova Had A ‘Delayed Detonation’

In 2008, astronomers discovered a star relatively nearby Earth went kablooie some 28,000 light-years away from us. Sharp-eyed astronomers, as they will do, trained their telescopes on it to snap pictures and take observations. Now, fresh observations from the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory suggest that supernova was actually a double-barrelled explosion.

This composite picture of G1.9+0.3, coupled with models by astronomers, suggest that this star had a “delayed detonation,” NASA stated.

“First, nuclear reactions occur in a slowly expanding wavefront, producing iron and similar elements. The energy from these reactions causes the star to expand, changing its density and allowing a much faster-moving detonation front of nuclear reactions to occur.”

To explain a bit better what’s going on with this star, there are two main types of supernovas:

In a Type Ia supernova, a white dwarf (left) draws matter from a companion star until its mass hits a limit which leads to collapse and then explosion. Credit: NASA
In a Type Ia supernova, a white dwarf (left) draws matter from a companion star until its mass hits a limit which leads to collapse and then explosion. Credit: NASA

– Type Ia: When a white dwarf merges with another white dwarf, or picks up matter from a close star companion. When enough mass accretes on the white dwarf, it reaches a critical density where carbon and oxygen fuse, then explodes.

– Type II: When a massive star reaches the end of its life, runs out of nuclear fuel and sees its iron core collapse.

NASA said this was a Type Ia supernova that “ejected stellar debris at high velocities, creating the supernova remnant that is seen today by Chandra and other telescopes.”

New research shows that some old stars known as white dwarfs might be held up by their rapid spins, and when they slow down, they explode as Type Ia supernovae. Thousands of these "time bombs" could be scattered throughout our Galaxy. In this artist's conception, a supernova explosion is about to obliterate an orbiting Saturn-like planet.   Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)
In this artist’s conception, a supernova explosion is about to obliterate an orbiting Saturn-like planet. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

You can actually see the different energies from the explosion in this picture, with red low-energy X-rays, green intermediate energies and blue high-energies.

“The Chandra data show that most of the X-ray emission is “synchrotron radiation,” produced by extremely energetic electrons accelerated in the rapidly expanding blast wave of the supernova. This emission gives information about the origin of cosmic rays — energetic particles that constantly strike the Earth’s atmosphere — but not much information about Type Ia supernovas,” NASA stated.

Also, unusually, this is an assymetrical explosion. There could have been variations in how it expanded, but astronomers are looking to map this out with future observations with Chandra and the National Science Foundation’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array.

Check out more information about this supernova in the scientific paper led by North Carolina State University.

Source: NASA

Hubble Provides Evidence for ‘Double Degenerate Progenitor’ Supernova

Supernova remnant SNR 0509-67.5. Supernovae provided the heavier elements in the Sun. Image credit: NASA/ESA/CXC


What happened 400 years ago to create this stunningly beautiful supernova remnant – and were there two culprits or just one? This Hubble Space Telescope view of a Type Ia-created remnant has helped astronomers solve a longstanding mystery on the type of stars that cause some supernovae, known as a progenitor.

“Up until this point we haven’t really known where this type of supernova came from, despite studying them for decades,” said Ashley Pagnotta of Louisiana State University, speaking at a press briefing at the American Astronomical Society meeting on Wednesday. “But we now can say we have the first definitive identification of a Type 1a progenitor, and we know this one must have had a double degenerate progenitor – it is the only option.”

This supernova remnant that has a telephone number-like name of SNR 0509-67.5, lies 170,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy.

Astronomers have long suspected that two stars were responsible for the explosion – as is the case with most type 1a supernovae — but weren’t sure what triggered the explosion. One explanation could be that it was caused by mass transfer from a companion star where a nearby star spills material onto a white dwarf companion, setting off a chain reaction that causes one of the most powerful explosions in the universe. This is known as the ‘single-degenerate’ path – which seems to be the most plausible, common and most preferred explanation for many Type 1a supernovae.

The other option is the collision of two white dwarfs, which is known as ‘double-degenerate, which seems to be the less common and not as widely accepted explanation for supernovae. To many astrophysicists, the merger scenario seemed to be less likely because too few double-white-dwarf systems appear to exist; indeed, there appear to be just handful that have been discovered so far.

The problem with SNR 0509-67.5 was that astronomers could not find any remnant of the companion star. That’s why the double degenerate scenario was considered, as in that case, there won’t be anything left as both white dwarfs are consumed in the explosion. In the case of a single progenitor, the non-white dwarf star will still be near the explosion site and will still look very much as it did before the explosion.

Therefore, a possible way to distinguish between the various progenitor models has been to look deep in the center of an old supernova remnant to search for the ex-companion star.

“We know Hubble has the sensitivity necessary to detect the faintest white dwarf remnants that could have caused such explosions,” said lead investigator Bradley Schaefer from LSU. “The logic here is the same as the famous quote from Sherlock Holmes: ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'”

In 2010, Schaefer and Pagnotta were preparing a proposal to look for any faint ex-companion stars in the center of four supernova remnants in the Large Magellanic Cloud when they saw an Astronomy Picture of the Day photo showing an image the Hubble Space Telescope had already had taken of one of their target remnants, SNR 0509-67.5.

(Note: the January 12, 2012 APOD image is of SNR 0509-67.5!)

Because the remnant appears as a nice symmetric shell or bubble, the geometric center can be determined accurately. In analyzing in more detail the central region, they found it to be completely empty of stars down to the limit of the faintest objects Hubble can detect in the photos. The young age also means that any surviving stars have not moved far from the site of the explosion. They were able to cross off the list all the possible single degenerate scenarios, and were left with the double degenerate model in which two white dwarfs collide.

“Since we can exclude all the possible single degenerates, we know it must be a double degenerate,” Pagnotta said. “The cause of SNR 0509-67.5 can be explained best by two tightly orbiting white dwarf stars spiraling closer and closer until they collided and exploded.”

Pagnotta also noted that this supernova is actually not a normal Type 1a supernova, but a subclass called 1991t, which is an extra bright supernova.

A paper in 2010 by Marat Gilfanov of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics indicated that perhaps many Type 1a supernova were caused by two white dwarf stars colliding, which was a surprise to many astronomers. Additionally, a review of the recent supernova SN 2011fe, which exploded in August of 2011, explores the possibility of the double degenerate progenitor. An open question remains whether these white dwarf mergers are the primary catalyst for Type Ia supernovae in spiral galaxies. Further studies are required to know if supernovae in spiral galaxies are caused by mergers or a mixture of the two processes.

Schaefer and Pagnotta plan to look at other supernova remnants in the Large Magellenic Cloud to further test their observations.

Pagnotta confirmed that anyone with an internet connection could have made this discovery, as all the Hubble images used were available publicly, and the use of the Hubble data was sparked by APOD.

Sources: Science Paper by Bradley E. Schaefer and Ashley Pagnotta (PDF document), HubbleSite, AAS press briefing

Supernova Discovered in M51 The Whirlpool Galaxy

M51 Hubble Remix

A new supernova (exploding star) has been discovered in the famous Whirlpool Galaxy, M51.

M51, The Whirlpool galaxy is a galaxy found in the constellation of Canes Venatici, very near the star Alkaid in the handle of the saucepan asterism of the big dipper. Easily found with binoculars or a small telescope.

The discovery was made on June 2nd by French astronomers and the supernova is reported to be around magnitude 14. More information (In French) can be found here or translated version here.

Image by BBC Sky at Night Presenter Pete Lawrence

The supernova will be quite tricky to spot visually and you may need a good sized dobsonian or similar telescope to spot it, but it will be a easy target for those interested in astro imaging.

The whirlpool galaxy was the first galaxy discovered with a spiral structure and is one of the most recognisable and famous objects in the sky.

Merging White Dwarfs Set Off Supernovae

Composite image of M31. Inset shows central region as seen by Chandra. Credit: NASA/CXC/MPA/ M.Gilfanov & A.Bogdan;

New results from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory suggests that the majority of Type Ia supernovae occur due to the merger of two white dwarfs. This new finding provides a major advance in understanding the type of supernovae that astronomers use to measure the expansion of the Universe, which in turns allows astronomers to study dark energy which is believed to pervade the universe. “It was a major embarrassment that we still didn’t know the conditions and progenitor systems of some the most spectacular explosions in the universe,” said Marat Gilfanov of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, at a press conference with reporters today. Gilfanov is the lead author of the study that appears in the Feb. 18 edition of the journal Nature.

Type Ia supernovae serve as cosmic mile markers to measure expansion of the universe. Because they can be seen at large distances, and they follow a reliable pattern of brightness. However, until now, scientists have been unsure what actually causes the explosions.

Most scientists agree a Type Ia supernova occurs when a white dwarf star — a collapsed remnant of an elderly star — exceeds its weight limit, becomes unstable and explodes. The two leading candidates for what pushes the white dwarf over the edge are the merging of two white dwarfs, or accretion, a process in which the white dwarf pulls material from a sun-like companion star until it exceeds its weight limit.

“Our results suggest the supernovae in the galaxies we studied almost all come from two white dwarfs merging,” said co-author Akos Bogdan, also of Max Planck. “This is probably not what many astronomers would expect.”

The difference between these two scenarios may have implications for how these supernovae can be used as “standard candles” — objects of a known brightness — to track vast cosmic distances. Because white dwarfs can come in a range of masses, the merger of two could result in explosions that vary somewhat in brightness.

Because these two scenarios would generate different amounts of X-ray emission, Gilfanov and Bogdan used Chandra to observe five nearby elliptical galaxies and the central region of the Andromeda galaxy. A Type Ia supernova caused by accreting material produces significant X-ray emission prior to the explosion. A supernova from a merger of two white dwarfs, on the other hand, would create significantly less X-ray emission than the accretion scenario.

The scientists found the observed X-ray emission was a factor of 30 to 50 times smaller than expected from the accretion scenario, effectively ruling it out.

So, for example, the Chandra image above would be about 40 times brighter than observed if Type Ia supernova in the bulge of this galaxy were triggered by material from a normal star falling onto a white dwarf star. Similar results for five elliptical galaxies were found.

This implies that white dwarf mergers dominate in these galaxies.

An open question remains whether these white dwarf mergers are the primary catalyst for Type Ia supernovae in spiral galaxies. Further studies are required to know if supernovae in spiral galaxies are caused by mergers or a mixture of the two processes. Another intriguing consequence of this result is that a pair of white dwarfs is relatively hard to spot, even with the best telescopes.

“To many astrophysicists, the merger scenario seemed to be less likely because too few double-white-dwarf systems appeared to exist,” said Gilfanov. “Now this path to supernovae will have to be investigated in more detail.”

Source: NASA

Supernova Simulations Point to White Dwarf Mergers

Type Ia supernovae, some of the most violent and luminous explosions in the Universe, have become a handy tool for astronomers to measure the size and expansion of the Universe itself. Because they explode with a rather specific peak luminosity, they can be used as “standard candles” to measure distances. New research presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting this week points to the increased likelihood that the mergers of the stars that create these explosions, white dwarfs, is more likely than previously thought, and could explain the properties of some Type Ia supernovae that are curiously less luminous than expected.

Research presented by Rüdiger Pakmor et al. from the Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany simulated the merger of two white dwarfs in a binary system, and showed that these simulations match previously observed supernovae with odd characteristics, specifically that of 1991bg. That supernova, and others observed since, was curiously less luminous than should have been expected if it were a Type Ia supernovae.

Type Ia supernovae occur when there are two stars orbiting each other in a binary system. In one scenario, one of the stars becomes a white dwarf, a small but very, very dense star, and steals matter from the other, pushing itself over the Chandrasekhar limit – 1.4 times the mass of the Sun – and undergoing a thermonuclear explosion.

Another cause for these types of supernovae could be the merger of both the stars in the system. In the scenario analyzed by these researchers, both stars were white dwarfs of masses just under that of the Sun: .83-0.9 solar masses.

The researchers showed that as the system loses energy due to the emission of gravitational waves, the two white dwarfs approach each other. As they merge, part of the material in one of the stars crashes into the other and heats up the carbon and oxygen, creating a thermonuclear explosion seen in Type Ia supernovae.

You can watch an animation of the simulated merger courtesy of the Max-Planck Institute’s Supernova Research Group right here.

Observations of supernovae like 1991bg show them to burn a smaller amount of nickel 56, about 0.1 solar masses, than regular Type Ia supernovae, which typically burn 0.4-0.9 solar masses of nickel. This makes them less luminous, because the radiative decay of the nickel is one of the phenomenon that gives the luminous display of Type Ia supernovae its punch.

“With our detailed explosion simulations, we could predict observables that indeed closely match actual observations of Type Ia supernovae,” said Friedrich Röpke, a co-author of the paper.

Their simulations show that when the two white dwarfs merge, the density of the system is less than in typical Type Ia supernovae, and thus less nickel is produced. The researchers note in their paper that these types of white dwarf mergers could comprise between 2-11 percent of the Type Ia supernovae observed.

Understanding the mechanisms that create these fantastic explosions is a necessary step in getting a handle on both the extent of our Universe and its expansion, as well as the diversity of Type Ia supernovae themselves.

If you would like to learn more about their research and the details of their computer modeling, the paper is available on Arxiv here. Their results will also be published in the January 7, 2010 edition of Nature.

Source: AAS press release, Arxiv paper

Could A Faraway Supernova Threaten Earth?

Supernovae, just like any other explosions, are really cool. But, just like any other explosion, it’s preferable to have them happen at a good distance. The star T Pyxidis, which lies over 3,000 light-years away from the Earth in the constellation Pyxis, was previously thought to be far enough away that if anything happened in the way of a supernova, we’d be pretty safe.

According to Edward Sion, Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Villanova University, T Pyxidis may be in fact a “ticking time bomb,” and potential threat to the Earth if it were to go supernova, which it may do sometime in the future, though very, very far in the future on our timescale: by Scion’s calculations, at least 10 million years.

Sion presented his findings at the American Astronomical Society Meeting in Washington, D.C. earlier today. T Pyxidis, which lies in the constellation Pyxis, is what is called a recurring nova. The star, which is a white dwarf, accretes gas from a companion star. As the amount of matter increases in the white dwarf, it occasionally builds up to the point where there is a runaway thermonuclear reaction in the star, and it ejects large quantities of material.

T Pyxidis has had five different outbursts over the course of observations of the star. It was the American Association of Variable Star Observers’ variable star of the month in April, 2002.  The first was in 1890, followed by another outburst in 1902 (these two were discovered much later on photographic plates in the Harvard plate collection). The next three were in 1920, 1944 and 1967. Its average for outbursts is about 19 years, but there hasn’t been one since the 1966 brightening.

The distance estimate to T Pyxidis, revised to 3,260 light-years from the previously estimated distance of 6,000 light-years has prompted a reconsideration of the details about the white dwarf. Hubble images that have been taken of the star would then have to be re-examined so as to revise the amount of mass the star is expected to be ejecting.

If the recurring novae are ejecting enough material, then the white dwarf would stay small enough to continue to go through the phase of recurring novae. However, if the shells of gas repeatedly ejected by the star do not carry enough mass away, it would eventually build up to pass the Chandrasekhar limit – 1.4 times the mass of the Sun – and become a Type Ia supernova, one of the most destructive events in our Universe.

Sion concluded the presentation with the statement (shown here on his last powerpoint slide) that “A Type Ia supernova exploding within 1000 parsecs of Earth will greatly affect our planet”

A supernova within 100 light-years of the Earth would likely be a catastrophic event for our planet, but something as far out as T Pyxidis may or may not damage the Earth. One of the journalists in attendance pointed out this possibility during the questions session and Sion said that the main danger lies in the amount of X-rays and gamma rays that stream from such an event, which could destroy the protective ozone layer of the Earth and leave the planet vulnerable to the ultraviolet light streaming from the Sun.

There remains some doubt as to whether T Pyxidis will go supernova at all. There is a good treatment of this subject in “The Nova Shell and Evolution of the Recurrent Nova T Pyxidis” by Bradley E. Schaefer et al. on Arxiv.

If you’re worried about the dangers of exploding stars, you should check out this video by Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer. He’ll calm you down.

Source: AAS Press Conference on USTREAM, Space.com

Can the Recurrent Novae RS Oph Become Type Ia Supernovae?


The classical scenario for creating Type Ia supernovae is a white dwarf star accreting mass from a nearby star entering the red giant phase. The growing red giant fills its Roche lobe and matter falls onto the white dwarf, pushing it over the Chandrasekhar limit causing a supernova. However, this assumes that the white dwarf is already right at the tipping point. In many cases, the white dwarf is well below the Chandrasekhar limit and matter piles up on the surface. It then ignites as a smaller nova blowing off most (if not all) of the material it worked so hard to collect.

A new paper by a group of European astronomers considers how this cycle will affect the overall accumulation of mass on the white dwarfs which undergo recurrent novae. In a previous, more simplistic 1D study (Yaron et al. 2005) simulations revealed that a net mass gain is possible if the white dwarf accumulates an average of 10-8 times the mass of the Sun each year. However, at this rate, the study suggested that most of the mass would be lost again in the resulting novae, and even a minuscule gain of 0.05 solar masses would take on the order of millions of years. If this was the case, then building up the required mass to explode as a Type Ia supernova would be out of reach for many white dwarfs since, if it took too much longer, the companion’s red giant phase would end and the dwarf would be out of material to gobble.

For their new study, the European team simulated the case of RS Ophiuchi (RS Oph) in a 3D situation. The simulation did not only take into consideration the mass loss from the giant onto the dwarf, but also included the evolution of the orbits (which would also influence the accretion rates) and varied rates for the velocity of the matter being lost from the giant. Unsurprisingly, the team found that for slower mass loss rates from the giant, the dwarf was able to accumulate more. “The accretion rates change from
around 10%  [of the mass of the red giant] in the slow case to roughly 2% in the fast case.”

What was not immediately obvious is that the loss of angular momentum as the giant shed its layers resulted in a decrease in the separation of the stars. In turn, this meant the giant and dwarf grew closer together and the accretion rate increased further. Overall they determined the current accretion rate for RS Oph was already higher than the 10-8 solar masses per year necessary for a net gain and due to the decreasing orbital distance, it would only improve. Since RS Oph’s mass is precipitously close to the 1.4 solar mass Chandrasekhar limit, they suggest, “RS Oph is a good candidate for a progenitor of an SN Ia.”