Millisecond Pulsar Discovered In Rare Triple Star System

If you’re looking for something truly unique, then check out the cosmic menage aux trois ferreted out by a team of international astronomers using the Green Bank Telescope (GBT). This unusual group located in the constellation of Taurus includes a pulsar which is orbited by a pair of white dwarf stars. It’s the first time researchers have identified a triple star system containing a pulsar and the team has already employed the clock-like precision of the pulsar’s beat to observe the effects of gravitational interactions.

“This is a truly remarkable system with three degenerate objects. It has survived three phases of mass transfer and a supernova explosion, and yet it remained dynamically stable”, says Thomas Tauris, first author of the present study. “Pulsars have previously been found with planets and in recent years a number of peculiar binary pulsars were discovered which seem to require a triple system origin. But this new millisecond pulsar is the first to be detected with two white dwarfs.”

This wasn’t just a chance discovery. The observations of 4,200 light year distant J0337+1715 came from an intensive study program involving several of the world’s largest radio telescopes including the GBT, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and ASTRON’s Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope in the Netherlands. West Virginia University graduate student Jason Boyles was the first to detect the millisecond pulsar, spinning nearly 366 times per second, and captured in a system which isn’t any larger than Earth’s orbit around the Sun. This close knit association, coupled with the fact the trio of stars is far denser than the Sun create the perfect conditions to examine the true nature of gravity. Generations of scientists have waited for such an opportunity to study the ‘Strong Equivalence Principle’ postulated in Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. “This triple star system gives us the best-ever cosmic laboratory for learning how such three-body systems work, and potentially for detecting problems with General Relativity, which some physicists expect to see under such extreme conditions,” says first author Scott Ransom of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

“It was a monumental observing campaign,” comments Jason Hessels, of ASTRON (the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy) and the University of Amsterdam. “For a time we were observing this pulsar every single day, just so we could make sense of the complicated way in which it was moving around its two companion stars.” Hessels led the frequent monitoring of the system with the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope.

Not only did the research team tackle a formidable amount of data, but they also took on the challenge of modeling the system. “Our observations of this system have made some of the most accurate measurements of masses in astrophysics,” says Anne Archibald, also from ASTRON. “Some of our measurements of the relative positions of the stars in the system are accurate to hundreds of meters, even though these stars are about 10,000 trillion kilometers from Earth” she adds.

Leading the study, Archibald created the system simulation which predicts its motions. Using the solid science methods once employed by Isaac Newton to study the Earth-Moon-Sun system, she then combined the data with the ‘new’ gravity of Albert Einstein, which was necessary to make sense of the information. “Moving forward, the system gives the scientists the best opportunity yet to discover a violation of a concept called the Strong Equivalence Principle. This principle is an important aspect of the theory of General Relativity, and states that the effect of gravity on a body does not depend on the nature or internal structure of that body.”

Need a refresher on the equivalence principle? Then if you don’t remember Galileo’s dropping two different weighted balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, then perhaps you’ll recall Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott’s dropping of a hammer and a falcon feather while standing on the airless surface of the Moon in 1971. Thanks to mirrors left on the lunar surface, laser ranging measurements have been studied for years and provide the strongest constraints on the validity of the equivalence principle. Here the experimental masses are the stars themselves, and their different masses and gravitational binding energies will serve to check whether they all fall towards each other according to the Strong Equivalence Principle, or not. “Using the pulsar’s clock-like signal we’ve started testing this,” Archibald explains. “We believe that our tests will be much more sensitive than any previous attempts to find a deviation from the Strong Equivalence Principle.” “We’re extremely happy to have such a powerful laboratory for studying gravity,” Hessels adds. “Similar star systems must be extremely rare in our galaxy, and we’ve luckily found one of the few!”

Original Story Source: Astronomie Netherlands News Release. Further reading: Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie (MPIfR) and NRAO Press Release.

Looking Into The Green Eye Of Planetary Nebula IC 1295

Located on Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, the ESO’s Very Large Telescope was busy using the FORS instrument (FOcal Reducer Spectrograph) to achieve one of the most detailed observations ever taken off a lonely, green planetary nebula – IC 1295. Exposures taken through three different filters which enhanced blue light, visible green light, and red light were melded together to make this 3300 light year distant object come alive.

Located in the constellation of Scutum, this jewel in the “Shield” is a miniscule star that’s at the end of its life. Much like our Sun will eventually become, this white dwarf star is softly shedding its outer layers, like an unfolding flower in space. It will continue this process for a few tens of thousands of years, before it ends, but until then IC 1295 will remain something of an enigma.

“The range of shapes observed up to today has been reproduced by many theoretical works using arguments such as density enhancements, magnetic fields, and binary central systems. Despite this, no complete agreement between models and properties of a given morphological group has been achieved. One of the main reasons for this is selection criteria and completeness of studied samples.” say researchers at Georgia State University. “The samples are usually limited by available images in few bands such as Ha, [NII] and [OIII]. Of course they are also limited by distance, since the further away the object is, the harder it is to resolve its structure. Even with the modern telescopes, obtaining a truly complete sample is far from being achieved.”

Why is this common deep space object like IC 1295 such a mystery? Blame it on its structure. It is comprised of multiple shells.- gaseous layers which once were the star’s atmosphere. As the star aged, its core became unstable and it erupted in unexpected releases of energy – like expansive blisters breaking open. These waves of gas are then illuminated by the ancient star’s ultraviolet radiation, causing it to glow. Each chemical acts as a pigment, resulting in different colors. In the case of IC 1295, the verdant shades are the product of ionised oxygen.

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This video sequence starts with a broad panorama of the Milky Way and closes in on the small constellation of Scutum (The Shield), home to many star clusters. The final detailed view shows the strange green planetary nebula IC 1295 in a new image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope. This faint object lies close to the brighter globular star cluster NGC 6712. Credit: ESO/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)/Chuck Kimball. Music: movetwo

However, green isn’t the only color you see here. At the heart of this planetary nebula beats a bright, blue-white stellar core. Over the course of billions of years, it will gently cool – becoming a very faint, white dwarf. It’s just all part of the process. Stars similar to the Sun, and up to eight times as large, are all theorized to form planetary nebulae as they extinguish. How long does a planetary nebula last? According to astronomers, it’s a process that could be around 8 to 10 thousand years.

“Athough planetary nebulae (PNe) have been discovered for over 200 years, it was not until 30 years ago that we arrived at a basic understanding of their origin and evolution.” says Sun Kwok of the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics. “Even today, with observations covering the entire electromagnetic spectrum from radio to X-ray, there are still many unanswered questions on their structure and morphology.”

Original Story Source: ESO Photo Release.

Dwarf Star

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A dwarf star is a star that is not a giant or supergiant … in other words, a dwarf star is a normal star! Of course, some dwarf stars are much smaller (less massive, have a smaller radius, etc) than normal (or main sequence, not really massive) stars … and these have names, like white dwarf, red dwarf, brown dwarf, and black dwarf. Our very own Sol (the Sun) is a dwarf star … a yellow dwarf.

Looking more closely at this rather confusing class of objects: a dwarf star has a mass of up to about 20 sols, and a luminosity (a.k.a. intrinsic brightness) of up to about 20,000 sols (‘sol’ is a neat unit; it can mean ‘the mass of the Sun’, or ‘the luminosity of the Sun’, or …!). So just about every star is a dwarf star! Why? Because most stars are on the main sequence (which means almost all have luminosities below 20,000 sols), and only a tiny handful of main sequence stars are more massive than 20 sols. In addition, once a star has burned through all its fuel, it becomes a white dwarf (and, one day, a black dwarf), all of which are dwarf stars by this definition.

The most interesting class of dwarf star is, perhaps, the black dwarf star; it’s hardly a star at all (it doesn’t burn any fuel, except, perhaps, deuterium, for a few million years or so).

So why do astronomers have this classification at all? Hitting the history books gives us a clue … back when spectroscopy was getting started, among astronomers – and well before there was any kind of astronomy except that in the optical (or visual) waveband; think the second half of the 19th century – a curious fact about stars was discovered: the spectra of stars with the same colors could still be very different (and when their distances were estimated, these spectral differences were found to track luminosity). So while dwarf stars overwhelmingly dominate, in terms of numbers, the giants (and sub-giants, and supergiants) pretty much rule in terms of what you can see with your unaided vision.

Neatly linking one kind of dwarf (the Sun, as a yellow dwarf) to another (white dwarf) is Universe Today’s The Sun as a White Dwarf. Other Universe Today articles on dwarf stars (not only white dwarfs!) include Astronomers Discover Youngest and Lowest Mass Dwarfs, Brown Dwarfs Form Like Stars, and Observing an Evaporating Extrasolar Planet.

Astronomy Cast’s episode Dwarf Stars has more on this topic.

Astronomers Find Type Ia Supernova Just Waiting to Happen

Type Ia supernovae are a mystery because no one can predict when or where one might occur. But astronomers are hedging their bets on V445 Puppis. A so-called “vampire white dwarf” that underwent a nova outburst after gulping down part of its companion’s matter in 2000, now, it appears this double star system is a prime candidate for exploding. “Whether V445 Puppis will eventually explode as a supernova, or if the current nova outburst has pre-empted that pathway by ejecting too much matter back into space is still unclear,” said Patrick Woudt, from the University of Cape Town and lead author of the paper reporting the results. “But we have here a pretty good suspect for a future Type Ia supernova!”

This is the first, and so far only nova showing no evidence at all for hydrogen, and provides the first evidence for an outburst on the surface of a white dwarf dominated by helium. “This is critical, as we know that Type Ia supernovae lack hydrogen,” said Danny Steeghs, from the University of Warwick, UK, “and the companion star in V445 Pup fits this nicely by also lacking hydrogen, instead dumping mainly helium gas onto the white dwarf.”

Click here to watch a movie of the expanding shell of V445 Puppis.

The astronomers have determined the system is about 25,000 light-years from the Sun, and it has an intrinsic brightness of over 10,000 times our Sun. This implies that the vampire white dwarf in this system has a high mass that is near its fatal limit and is still simultaneously being fed by its companion at a high rate.

“One of the major problems in modern astrophysics is the fact that we still do not know exactly what kinds of stellar system explode as a Type Ia supernova,” said Woudt, “As these supernovae play a crucial role in showing that the Universe’s expansion is currently accelerating, pushed by a mysterious dark energy, it is rather embarrassing.”

Shell around V445 Puppis  (March 2005). Credit: ESO
Shell around V445 Puppis (March 2005). Credit: ESO

Woudt and his team used the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) to obtain very sharp images of V445 Puppis over a time span of two years. The images show a bipolar shell, initially with a very narrow waist, with lobes on each side. Two knots are also seen at both the extreme ends of the shell, which appear to move at about 30 million kilometers per hour. The shell — unlike any previously observed for a nova — is itself moving at about 24 million kilometers per hour. A thick disc of dust, which must have been produced during the last outburst, obscures the two central stars.

As Steeghs said, one defining characteristic of Type Ia supernovae is the lack of hydrogen in their spectrum. Yet hydrogen is the most common chemical element in the Universe. Such supernovae most likely arise in systems composed of two stars, one of them being the end product of the life of sun-like stars, or white dwarfs. When such white dwarfs, acting as stellar vampires that suck matter from their companion, become heavier than a given limit, they become unstable and explode.

The build-up is not a simple process. As the white dwarf cannibalizes its prey, matter accumulates on its surface. If this layer becomes too dense, it becomes unstable and erupts as a nova. These controlled, mini-explosions eject part of the accumulated matter back into space. The crucial question is thus to know whether the white dwarf can manage to gain weight despite the outburst, that is, if some of the matter taken from the companion stays on the white dwarf, so that it will eventually become heavy enough to explode as a supernova.

Read the team’s paper.

Source: ESO

What Are The Different Types of Stars?

A star is a star, right? Sure there are some difference in terms of color when you look up at the night sky. But they are all basically the same, big balls of gas burning up to billions of light years away, right?  Well, not exactly. In truth, stars are about as diverse as anything else in our Universe, falling into one of many different classifications based on its defining characteristics.

All in all, there are many different types of stars, ranging from tiny brown dwarfs to red and blue supergiants. There are even more bizarre kinds of stars, like neutron stars and Wolf-Rayet stars. And as our exploration of the Universe continues, we continue to learn things about stars that force us to expand on the way we think of them. Let’s take a look at all the different types of stars there are.

Protostar:

A protostar is what you have before a star forms. A protostar is a collection of gas that has collapsed down from a giant molecular cloud. The protostar phase of stellar evolution lasts about 100,000 years. Over time, gravity and pressure increase, forcing the protostar to collapse down. All of the energy release by the protostar comes only from the heating caused by the gravitational energy – nuclear fusion reactions haven’t started yet.

Size chart showing our Sun (far left) compared to larger stars. Credit: earthspacecircle.blogspot.ca
Size chart showing our Sun (far left) compared to larger stars. Credit: earthspacecircle.blogspot.ca

T Tauri Star:

A T Tauri star is stage in a star’s formation and evolution right before it becomes a main sequence star. This phase occurs at the end of the protostar phase, when the gravitational pressure holding the star together is the source of all its energy. T Tauri stars don’t have enough pressure and temperature at their cores to generate nuclear fusion, but they do resemble main sequence stars; they’re about the same temperature but brighter because they’re a larger. T Tauri stars can have large areas of sunspot coverage, and have intense X-ray flares and extremely powerful stellar winds. Stars will remain in the T Tauri stage for about 100 million years.

Main Sequence Star:

The majority of all stars in our galaxy, and even the Universe, are main sequence stars. Our Sun is a main sequence star, and so are our nearest neighbors, Sirius and Alpha Centauri A. Main sequence stars can vary in size, mass and brightness, but they’re all doing the same thing: converting hydrogen into helium in their cores, releasing a tremendous amount of energy.

A star in the main sequence is in a state of hydrostatic equilibrium. Gravity is pulling the star inward, and the light pressure from all the fusion reactions in the star are pushing outward. The inward and outward forces balance one another out, and the star maintains a spherical shape. Stars in the main sequence will have a size that depends on their mass, which defines the amount of gravity pulling them inward.

The lower mass limit for a main sequence star is about 0.08 times the mass of the Sun, or 80 times the mass of Jupiter. This is the minimum amount of gravitational pressure you need to ignite fusion in the core. Stars can theoretically grow to more than 100 times the mass of the Sun.

Red Giant Star:

When a star has consumed its stock of hydrogen in its core, fusion stops and the star no longer generates an outward pressure to counteract the inward pressure pulling it together. A shell of hydrogen around the core ignites continuing the life of the star, but causes it to increase in size dramatically. The aging star has become a red giant star, and can be 100 times larger than it was in its main sequence phase. When this hydrogen fuel is used up, further shells of helium and even heavier elements can be consumed in fusion reactions. The red giant phase of a star’s life will only last a few hundred million years before it runs out of fuel completely and becomes a white dwarf.

White Dwarf Star:

When a star has completely run out of hydrogen fuel in its core and it lacks the mass to force higher elements into fusion reaction, it becomes a white dwarf star. The outward light pressure from the fusion reaction stops and the star collapses inward under its own gravity. A white dwarf shines because it was a hot star once, but there’s no fusion reactions happening any more. A white dwarf will just cool down until it because the background temperature of the Universe. This process will take hundreds of billions of years, so no white dwarfs have actually cooled down that far yet.

Red Dwarf Star:

Red dwarf stars are the most common kind of stars in the Universe. These are main sequence stars but they have such low mass that they’re much cooler than stars like our Sun. They have another advantage. Red dwarf stars are able to keep the hydrogen fuel mixing into their core, and so they can conserve their fuel for much longer than other stars. Astronomers estimate that some red dwarf stars will burn for up to 10 trillion years. The smallest red dwarfs are 0.075 times the mass of the Sun, and they can have a mass of up to half of the Sun.

Neutron Stars:

If a star has between 1.35 and 2.1 times the mass of the Sun, it doesn’t form a white dwarf when it dies. Instead, the star dies in a catastrophic supernova explosion, and the remaining core becomes a neutron star. As its name implies, a neutron star is an exotic type of star that is composed entirely of neutrons. This is because the intense gravity of the neutron star crushes protons and electrons together to form neutrons. If stars are even more massive, they will become black holes instead of neutron stars after the supernova goes off.

Supergiant Stars:

The largest stars in the Universe are supergiant stars. These are monsters with dozens of times the mass of the Sun. Unlike a relatively stable star like the Sun, supergiants are consuming hydrogen fuel at an enormous rate and will consume all the fuel in their cores within just a few million years. Supergiant stars live fast and die young, detonating as supernovae; completely disintegrating themselves in the process.

As you can see, stars come in many sizes, colors and varieties. Knowing what accounts for this, and what their various life stages look like, are all important when it comes to understanding our Universe. It also helps when it comes to our ongoing efforts to explore our local stellar neighborhood, not to mention in the hunt for extra-terrestrial life!

We have written many articles about stars on Universe Today. Here’s What is the Biggest Star in the Universe?, What is a Binary Star?, Do Stars Move?, What are the Most Famous Stars?, What is the Brightest Star in the Sky, Past and Future?

Want more information on stars? Here’s Hubblesite’s News Releases about Stars, and more information from NASA’s imagine the Universe.

We have recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about stars. Here are two that you might find helpful: Episode 12: Where Do Baby Stars Come From, and Episode 13: Where Do Stars Go When they Die?