Closely-Orbiting Stellar Companions Surrounded by “Mystery Dust”

Artist’s concept showing a dust disk around a binary system containing a white dwarf and a less-massive M (red) dwarf companion. (P. Marenfeld and NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Even though NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer spacecraft — aka WISE — ran out of coolant in October 2010, bringing its infrared survey mission to an end, the data that it gathered will be used by astronomers for decades to come as it holds clues to some of the most intriguing and hard-to-find objects in the Universe.

Recently astronomers using WISE data have found evidence of a particularly curious disk of dust and gas surrounding a pair of stars — one a dim red dwarf and the other the remains of a dead Sun-sized star — a white dwarf. The origin of the gas is a mystery, since based on standard models of stellar evolution it shouldn’t be there… yet there it is.

The binary system (which has the easy-to-remember name SDSS J0303+0054) consists of a white dwarf and a red dwarf separated by a distance only slightly larger than the radius of the Sun — about 700,000 km — which is incredibly close for two whole stars. The stars orbit each other quickly too: once every 3 hours.

The stars are so close that the system is referred to as a “post-common envelope” binary, because at one point the outer material of one star expanded out far enough to briefly engulf the other completely in what’s called a “common envelope.” This envelope of material brought the stars even closer together, transferring stellar material between them and ultimately speeding up the death of the white dwarf.

The system was first spotted during the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (hence the SDSS prefix) and was observed with WISE’s infrared abilities during a search for dust disks or brown dwarfs orbiting white dwarf stars. To find both a red (M) dwarf star 40-50 times the mass of Jupiter and a disk of dust orbiting the white dwarf in this system was unexpected — in fact, it’s the only known example of a system like it.

The entire mass of the dust (termed an infrared excess) is estimated to be “equivalent to the mass of an asteroid a few tens of kilometers in radius” and extends out to about the same distance as Venus’ orbit — just over 108 million kilometers, or 0.8 AU.

Why is the dust so unusual? Because, basically, it shouldn’t even be there. At that distance from the white dwarf, positioned just out of reach (but not terribly far away at all) anything that was within that zone when the original Sun-sized star swelled into its red giant phase should have spiraled inwards, getting swallowed up by the expanding stellar atmosphere.

Such is the fate that likely awaits the inner planets of our own Solar System — including Earth — when the Sun reaches the final phases of its stellar life.

So this requires that there are other sources of the dust. According to the WISE science update, “One possibility is that it is caused by multiple asteroids that orbit further away and somehow are perturbed close to the binary and collide with each other. [Another] is that the red dwarf companion releases a large amount of gas in a stellar wind that is trapped by the gravitational pull of its more massive white dwarf companion. The gas then condenses and forms the dust disk that is observed.

“Either way, this new discovery provides an interesting laboratory for the study of binary star evolution.”

See the team’s paper here, and read more on Berkeley’s WISE mission site here.

WISE launched into space on Dec. 14, 2009 on a mission to map the entire sky in infrared light with greatly improved sensitivity and resolution over its predecessors. From its polar orbit 525 kilometers (326 miles) in altitude it scanned the skies, collecting images taken at four infrared wavelengths of light. WISE took more than 2.7 million images over the course of its mission, capturing objects ranging from faraway galaxies to asteroids relatively close to Earth before exhausting the supply of coolant necessary to mask its own heat from its ultra-sensitive sensors.

Inset:  Infrared images of SDSS J0303+0054.  (NASA/JPL and  John H. Debes et. al.)

Effects of Einstein’s Elusive Gravitational Waves Observed

Chandra data (above, graph) on J0806 show that its X-rays vary with a period of 321.5 seconds, or slightly more than five minutes. This implies that the X-ray source is a binary star system where two white dwarf stars are orbiting each other (above, illustration) only 50,000 miles apart, making it one of the smallest known binary orbits in the Galaxy. According to Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, such a system should produce gravitational waves - ripples in space-time - that carry energy away from the system and cause the stars to move closer together. X-ray and optical observations indicate that the orbital period of this system is decreasing by 1.2 milliseconds every year, which means that the stars are moving closer at a rate of 2 feet per year.

Two white dwarfs similar to those in the system SDSS J065133.338+284423.37 spiral together in this illustration from NASA. Credit: D. Berry/NASA GSFC

Locked in a spiraling orbital embrace, the super-dense remains of two dead stars are giving astronomers the evidence needed to confirm one of Einstein’s predictions about the Universe.

A binary system located about 3,000 light-years away, SDSS J065133.338+284423.37 (J0651 for short) contains two white dwarfs orbiting each other rapidly — once every 12.75 minutes. The system was discovered in April 2011, and since then astronomers have had their eyes — and four separate telescopes in locations around the world — on it to see if gravitational effects first predicted by Einstein could be seen.

According to Einstein, space-time is a structure in itself, in which all cosmic objects — planets, stars, galaxies — reside. Every object with mass puts a “dent” in this structure in all dimensions; the more massive an object, the “deeper” the dent. Light energy travels in a straight line, but when it encounters these dents it can dip in and veer off-course, an effect we see from Earth as gravitational lensing.

Einstein also predicted that exceptionally massive, rapidly rotating objects — such as a white dwarf binary pair — would create outwardly-expanding ripples in space-time that would ultimately “steal” kinetic energy from the objects themselves. These gravitational waves would be very subtle, yet in theory, observable.

Read: Astronomy Without a Telescope: Gravitational Waves

What researchers led by a team at The University of Texas at Austin have found is optical evidence of gravitational waves slowing down the stars in J0651. Originally observed in 2011 eclipsing each other (as seen from Earth) once every six minutes, the stars now eclipse six seconds sooner. This equates to a predicted orbital period reduction of about 0.25 milliseconds each year.*

“These compact stars are orbiting each other so closely that we have been able to observe the usually negligible influence of gravitational waves using a relatively simple camera on a 75-year-old telescope in just 13 months,” said study lead author J.J. Hermes, a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin.

Based on these measurements, by April 2013 the stars will be eclipsing each other 20 seconds sooner than first observed. Eventually they will merge together entirely.

Although this isn’t “direct” observation of gravitational waves, it is evidence inferred by their predicted effects… akin to watching a floating lantern in a dark pond at night moving up and down and deducing that there are waves present.

“It’s exciting to confirm predictions Einstein made nearly a century ago by watching two stars bobbing in the wake caused by their sheer mass,” said Hermes.

As of early last year NASA and ESA had a proposed mission called LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) that would have put a series of 3 detectors into space 5 million km apart, connected by lasers. This arrangement of precision-positioned spacecraft could have detected any passing gravitational waves in the local space-time neighborhood, making direct observation possible. Sadly this mission was canceled due to FY2012 budget cuts for NASA, but ESA is moving ahead with developments for its own gravitational wave mission, called eLISA/NGO — the first “pathfinder” portion of which is slated to launch in 2014.

The study was submitted to Astrophysical Journal Letters on August 24. Read more on the McDonald Observatory news release here.

Inset image: simulation of binary black holes causing gravitational waves – C. Reisswig, L. Rezzolla (AEI); Scientific visualization – M. Koppitz (AEI & Zuse Institute Berlin)

*The difference in the eclipse time is noted as six seconds even though the orbital period decay of the two stars is only .25 milliseconds/year because of a pile-up effect of all the eclipses observed since April 2011. The measurements made by the research team takes into consideration the phase change in the J0651 system, which experiences a piling effect — similar to an out-of-sync watch — that increases relative to time^2 and is therefore a larger and easier number to detect and work with. Once that was measured, the actual orbital period decay could be figured out.

A New Species of Type Ia Supernova?

Artist’s conception of a binary star system that produces recurrent novae, and ultimately, the supernova PTF 11kx. (Credit: Romano Corradi and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias)

Although they have been used as the “standard candles” of cosmic distance measurement for decades, Type Ia supernovae can result from different kinds of star systems, according to recent observations conducted by the Palomar Transient Factory team at California’s Berkeley Lab.

Judging distances across intergalactic space from here on Earth isn’t easy. Within the Milky Way — and even nearby galaxies — the light emitted by regularly pulsating stars (called Cepheid variables) can be used to determine how far away a region in space is. Outside of our own local group of galaxies, however, individual stars can’t be resolved, and so in order to figure out how far away distant galaxies are astronomers have learned to use the light from much brighter objects: Type Ia supernovae, which can flare up with a brilliance equivalent to 5 billion Suns.

Type Ia supernovae are created from a special pairing of two stars orbiting each other: one super-dense white dwarf drawing material in from a companion until a critical mass — about 40% more massive than the Sun — is reached. The overpacked white dwarf suddenly undergoes a rapid series of thermonuclear reactions, exploding in an incredibly bright outburst of material and energy… a beacon visible across the Universe.

Because the energy and luminance of Type Ia supernovae have been found to be so consistently alike, distance can be gauged by their apparent brightness as seen from Earth. The dimmer one is when observed, the farther away its galaxy is. Based on this seemingly universal similarity it’s been thought that these supernovae must be created under very similar situations… especially since none have been directly observed — until now.

An international team of astronomers working on the Palomar Transient Factory collaborative survey have observed for the first time a Type Ia supernova-creating star pair — called a progenitor system — located in the constellation Lynx. Named PTF 11kx, the system, estimated to be some 600 million light-years away, contains a white dwarf and a red giant star, a coupling that has not been seen in previous (although indirect) observations.

“It’s a total surprise to find that thermonuclear supernovae, which all seem so similar, come from different kinds of stars,” says Andy Howell, a staff scientist at the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) and a co-author on the paper, published in the August 24 issue of Science. “How could these events look so similar, if they had different origins?”

The initial observations of PTF 11kx were made possible by a robotic telescope mounted on the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope at California’s Palomar Observatory as well as a high-speed data pipeline provided by the NSF, NASA and Department of Energy. The supernova was identified on January 16, 2011 and supported by subsequent spectrography data from Lick Observatory, followed up by immediate “emergency” observations with the Keck Telescope in Hawaii.

“We basically called up a fellow UC observer and interrupted their observations in order to get time critical spectra,” said Peter Nugent, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a co-author on the paper.

The Keck observations showed the PTF 11kx post-supernova system to contain slow-moving clouds of gas and dust that couldn’t have come from the recent supernova event. Instead, the clouds — which registered high in calcium in the Lick spectrographic data — must have come from a previous nova event in which the white dwarf briefly ignited and blew off an outer layer of its atmosphere. This expanding cloud was then seen to be slowing down, likely due to the stellar wind from a companion red giant.

(What’s the difference between a nova and a supernova? Read NASA’s STEREO Spots a New Nova)

Eventually the decelerating nova cloud was impacted by the rapidly-moving outburst from the supernova, evidenced by a sudden burst in the calcium signal which had gradually diminished in the two months since the January event. This calcium burst was, in effect, the supernova hitting the nova and causing it to “light up”.

The observations of PTF 11kx show that Type Ia supernova can occur in progenitor systems where the white dwarf has undergone nova eruptions, possibly repeatedly — a scenario that many astronomers had previously thought couldn’t happen. This could even mean that PTF 11kx is an entirely new species of Type Ia supernova, and while previously unseen and rare, not unique.

Which means our cosmic “standard candles” may need to get their wicks trimmed.

“We know that Type 1a supernovae vary slightly from galaxy to galaxy, and we’ve been calibrating for that, but this PTF 11kx observation is providing the first explanation of why this happens,” Nugent said. “This discovery gives us an opportunity to refine and improve the accuracy of our cosmic measurements.”

Source: Berkeley Lab news center

Inset images: PTF 11kx observation (BJ Fulton, Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network) / The 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope dome at Palomar Observatory. Video: Romano Corradi and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias

Will This Be The Fate Of The Earth?


Astronomers have found four nearby white dwarf stars surrounded by disks of material that could be the remains of rocky planets much like Earth — and one star in particular appears to be in the act of swallowing up what’s left of an Earthlike planet’s core.

The research, announced today by the Royal Astronomical Society, gives a chilling look at the eventual fate that may await our own planet.

Astronomers from the University of Warwick used Hubble to identify the composition of four white dwarfs’ atmospheres, found during a survey of over 80 such stars located within 100 light-years of the Sun. What they found was a majority of the material was composed of elements found in our own Solar System: oxygen, magnesium, silicon and iron. Together these elements make up 93% of our planet.

In addition, a curiously low ratio of carbon was identified, indicating that rocky planets were at one time in orbit around the stars.

Since white dwarfs are the leftover cores of stellar-mass stars that have burnt through all their fuel, the material in their atmosphere is likely the leftover bits of planets. Once held in safe, stable orbits, when their stars neared the ends of their lives they expanded, possibly engulfing the innermost planets and disrupting the orbits of others, triggering a runaway collision effect that eventually shattered them all, forming an orbiting cloud of debris.

This could very well be what happens to our Solar System in four or five billion years.

“What we are seeing today in these white dwarfs several hundred light years away could well be a snapshot of the very distant future of the Earth,” said Professor Boris Gänsicke of the Department of Physics at the University of Warwick, who led the study. “During the transformation of the Sun into a white dwarf, it will lose a large amount of mass, and all the planets will move further out. This may destabilise the orbits and lead to collisions between planetary bodies as happened in the unstable early days of our solar systems.”

Three easy steps to planetary destruction. (© Mark A. Garlick / / University of Warwick)

One of the white dwarfs studied, labeled PG0843+516, may even be actively eating the remains of an once-Earthlike world’s core.

The researchers identified an abundance of heavier elements like iron, nickel and sulphur in the atmosphere surrounding PG0843+516. These elements are found in the cores of terrestrial planets, having sunk into their interiors during the early stages of planetary formation. Finding them out in the open attests to the destruction of a rocky world like ours.

Of course, being heavier elements, they will be the first to be accreted  by their star.

“It is entirely feasible that in PG0843+516 we see the accretion of such fragments made from the core material of what was once a terrestrial exoplanet,” Prof. Gänsicke said.

It’s an eerie look into a distant future, when Earth and the inner planets could become just some elements in a cloud.

Read the full story on the RAS site here.


The Contributor to SN 2011fe

Astrophoto: Supernova PTF11kly in M101 by Rick Johnson


When discovered on August 24, 2011, supernova 2011fe was the closest supernova since the famous SN 1987A. Located in the relatively nearby Pinwheel galaxy (M101), it was a prime target for scientists to study since the host galaxy has been well studied and many high resolution images exist from before the explosion, allowing astronomers to search them for information on the star that led to the eruption. But when astronomers, led by Weidong Li, at the University of California, Berkeley searched, what they found defied the typically accepted explanations for supernovae of the same type as 2011fe.

SN 2011fe was a type 1a supernova. This class of supernova is expected to be caused by a white dwarf which accumulates mass contributed by a companion star. The general expectation is that the companion star is a star evolving off the main sequence. As it does, it swells up, and matter spills onto the white dwarf. If this pushes the dwarf’s mass over the limit of 1.4 times the mass of the Sun, the star can no longer support the weight and it undergoes a runaway collapse and rebound, resulting in a supernova.

Fortunately, the swollen up stars, known as red giants, become exceptionally bright due to their large surface area. The eighth brightest star in our own sky, Betelgeuse, is one of these red giants. This high brightness means that these objects are visible from large distances, potentially even in galaxies as distant as the Pinwheel. If so, the astronomers from Berkeley would be able to search archival images and detect the brighter red giant to study the system prior to the explosion.

But when the team searched the images from the Hubble Space Telescope which had snapped pictures through eight different filters, no star was visible at the location of the supernova. This finding follows a quick report from September which announced the same results, but with a much lower threshold for detection. The team followed up by searching images from the Spitzer infrared telescope which also failed to find any source at the proper location.

While this doesn’t rule out the presence of the contributing star, it does place constraints on its properties. The limit on brightness means that the contributor star could not have been a luminous red giant. Instead, the result favors another model of mass donation known as a double-degenerate model

In this scenario, two white dwarfs (both supported by degenerate electrons) orbit one another in a tight orbit. Due to relativistic effects, the system will slowly lose energy and eventually the two stars will become close enough that one will become disrupted enough to spill mass onto the other. If this mass transfer pushes the primary over the 1.4 solar mass limit, it would trigger the same sort of explosion.

This double degenerate model does not exclusively rule out the possibility of red giants contributing to type Ia supernovae, but recently other evidence has revealed missing red giants in other cases.

A White-Hot Relationship



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!

T-Dwarf Stars Finally Reveal Their Mysterious Secrets

Eclipsing Binaries


Astronomers have recently discovered an exotic star system which has shed some light on the mass and age of one of the systems rare stellar components. Using data from World’s largest optical telescope, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, the team has had a new insight into the properties of the unusual T-dwarf stars. Its believed there are around 200 of these stars in our Galaxy but this is the first one to be discovered as part of a binary star system which has given astronomers an extra special insight into their properties.

The system, that has been dubbed the ‘Rosetta Stone’ for T-dwarf stars, was studied by a team led by Dr Avril Day-Jones of the Universidad de Chile and included Dr David Pinfield of the University of Hertfordshire and other astronomers from the University of Montreal. They first identified the dwarf star, which has a temperature of around 1000 degrees compared to our Sun at 5500 degrees, in the UKIRT Infra-red Deep Sky Survey while searching for the coolest objects in the Galaxy. They found to their surprise, that the T-dwarf star was joined by a companion blue star, later revealed to be a cool white dwarf. The pair have now been given the ‘memorable‘ name of 1459+0857 A and B.

The binary system is the first of its type to be discovered as, whilst both types of stars have been identified individually, they have never been found gravitationally bound to one another. The two stars are about 0.25 light years apart (compared to our nearest star at just over 4 light years away) but despite the distance and the weak gravitational interaction between the stars, they remain in orbit and will do so until the two stars slowly fizzle out to a dark and cool death.

The T-dwarf stars are an exotic breed which lie on the border between a star and a planet, much like our own Solar System giant, the planet Jupiter. They are not massive enough for nuclear reactions to take place in the core so from their birth, they simply cool and fade. The presence of methane too is a pointer to their cool nature as it gets destroyed at higher temperatures and so is not found in fully fledged stars. The companion star, the white dwarf, is a star at the end of its life. When average stars like the Sun die, their outer layers will blow off into space, leaving behind a planetary nebula and a cooling, dying stellar core. With the new binary system, the white dwarf star lost a significant amount of matter and so its gravitational pull weakened, slowly increasing the distance between the two companions. The planetary nebula has long since dissipated and from looking at the white dwarf, we can tell that this weak, fragile system has existed for several billions of year.

The discovery of this binary system has allowed the team to test the physics of cool stellar atmospheres that exist on these strange, failed stars and to measure its mass and age, providing an opportunity for astronomers to study other low mass objects. “The discovery is an important stepping stone to improve astronomers ability to measure the properities of low-mass star like objects (brown dwarfs). ” Dr Pinfield told Universe Today. “Only be accurately measuring these properties will we be able to understand how these objects form and evolve over time. Brown dwarfs are just as numerous as stars in the Milky Way, but their nature is not yet well understood. As such, this new discovery is helping astronomers interpret an important but mysterious population of objects that are quite common in our Galactic backyard.”

Mark Thompson is a writer and the astronomy presenter on the BBC One Show. See his website, The People’s Astronomer, and you can follow him on Twitter, @PeoplesAstro

Planets and their Remnants around White Dwarfs

The white dwarf G29-38. Many stars, including our Sun, end their lives as white dwarfs. Determining the masses of white dwarf stars is key to the new technique of determining a star's age. Image Credit: NASA


While supernovae are the most dramatic death of stars, 95% of stars will end their lives in a far more quiet fashion, first swelling up to a red giant (perhaps a few times for good measure) before slowly releasing their outer layers into a planetary nebula and fading away as a white dwarf. This is the fate of our own sun which will expand nearly to the orbit of Mars. Mercury, Venus, and Earth will be completely consumed. But what will happen to the rest of the planets in the system?

While many stories have suggested that as the star reaches the red giant phase, even before swallowing the Earth, the inner planets will become inhospitable while the habitable zone will expand to the outer planets, perhaps making the now frozen moons of Jupiter the ideal beach getaway. However, these situations routinely only consider planets with unchanging orbits. As the star loses mass, orbits will change. Those close in will experience drag due to the increased density of released gas. Those further out will be spared but will have orbits that slowly expand as the mass interior to their orbit is shed. Planets at different radii will feel the combination of these effects in different ways causing their orbits to change in ways unrelated to one another.

This general shaking up of the orbital system will result in the system becoming once again, dynamically “young”, with planets migrating and interacting much as they would when the system was first forming. The possible close interactions can potentially crash planets together, fling them out of the system, into looping elliptical orbits, or worse, into the star itself. But can evidence of these planets be found?

A recent review paper explores the possibility. Due to convection in the white dwarf, heavy elements are quickly dragged to lower layers of the star removing traces of elements other than hydrogen and helium in the spectra. Thus, should heavy elements be detected, it would be evidence of ongoing accretion either from the interstellar medium or from a source of circumstellar material. The author of the review lists two early examples of white dwarfs with atmospheres polluted in this respect: van Maanen 2 and G29-38. The spectra of both show strong absorption lines due to calcium while the latter has also had a dust disk detected around the star?

But is this dust disk a remnant of a planet? Not necessarily. Although the material could be larger objects, such as asteroids, smaller dust sized grains would be swept from the solar system due to radiation pressure from the star during the main sequence lifetime. Much like planets, the asteroids orbits would be perturbed and any passing too close to the star could be torn apart tidally and pollute the star as well, albeit on a much smaller scale than a digested planet. Also along these lines is the potential disruption of a potential Oort cloud. Some estimates have predicted that a planet similar to Jupiter may have it’s orbit expanded as much as a thousand times, which would likely scatter many into the star as well.

The key to sorting these sources out may again lie with spectroscopy. While asteroids and comets could certainly contribute to the pollution of the white dwarf, the strength of the spectral lines would be an indirect indicator of the averaged rate of absorption and should be higher for planets. Additionally, the ratio of various elements may help constrain where the consumed body formed in the system. Although astronomers have found numerous gaseous planets in tight orbits around their host stars, it is suspected that these formed further out where temperatures would allow for the gas to condense before being swept away. Objects formed closer in would likely be more rocky in nature and if consumed, their contribution to the spectra would be shifted towards heavier elements.

With the launch of the Spitzer telescope, dust disks indicative of interactions have been found around numerous white dwarfs and improving spectral observations have indicated that a significant number of systems appear polluted. “If one attributes all metal-polluted white dwarfs to rocky debris, then the fraction of terrestrial planetary systems that survive post-main sequence evolution (at least in part) is as high as 20% to 30%”. However, with consideration for other sources of pollution, the number drops to a few percent. Hopefully, as observations progress, astronomers will begin to discover more planets around stars between the main sequence and white dwarf region to better explore this phase of planetary evolution.

Possibility for White Dwarf Pulsars?

AE Aquarii - A possible White Dwarf Pulsar


Some satellites get all the glory. While Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer frequently make headlines with their stunning images, many other space based observatories silently toil away. One of them, known as the Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics (PAMELA) has been in orbit since 2006, but rarely receives media attention although a stunning discovery has led to the publication of over 300 papers within a single year. A new paper in that onslaught has proposed an interesting new object: pulsars powered by white dwarfs.
PAMELA isn’t a satellite in its own right. It piggybacks on another satellite. Its mission is to observe high energy cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are particles, whether they be protons, electrons, nuclei of entire atoms, or other pieces, that are accelerated to high velocities, often from exotic sources and cosmological distances.

Among the types of particles PAMELA detects is the elusive positron. This anti-particle of the electron is quite rare due to the scarcity of anti-matter in general in our universe. However, much to the surprise of astronomers, in the range of 10 – 100 GeV, PAMELA has reported an abundance of positrons. In even higher ranges (100 GeV – 1 TeV) astronomers have found that there is a rise in both electrons and positrons. The conclusion from this is that something is able to actually create these particles in these energy ranges.

A flurry of papers went to publication to explain this unexpected finding. Explanations ranged from showers of particles created by even higher energy cosmic rays striking the interstellar medium, to the decay of dark matter, to neutron stars, pulsars, supernovae, and gamma ray bursts. Indeed, many events that produce high energies are sufficient to spontaneously produce matter from energy through the process of pair production. However, the range of these ejected particles would be limited. Effects, such as synchrotron and inverse Compton emission would drain their energy over large distances and as such, by the time they reached PAMELA’s detectors would be too low energy to account for the excesses in the observed energy ranges. From this, astronomers are presuming the culprits are in the local universe.

Joining the long list of candidates, a new paper has proposed a mundane object could be responsible for the high energy necessary to create these energetic particles, albeit with an unusual twist. Neutron stars, one of the potential objects formed in a supernova, are known to release large amounts of energies when spinning quickly while creating a strong magnetic field in the form of pulsars, but the authors propose that white dwarfs, the products of the slow death from stars not massive enough to result in a supernova, may be able to do the same thing. The difficulty in creating such a white dwarf pulsar is that, since white dwarfs don’t collapse to such a small size, they don’t “spin up” as much as they conserve angular momentum and shouldn’t have the sufficient angular velocity necessary.

The authors, led by Kazumi Kashiyama at Kyoto University propose that a white dwarf may reach the necessary rotational speed if they undergo a merger or accrete a sufficient amount of mass. This idea is not unheard of since white dwarf mergers and accretion are already implicated in Type Ia Supernovae. The combination of this with the expectation that around 10% of white dwarfs are expected to have magnetic fields of 106 Gauss, the steps necessary to produce a pulsar from a white dwarf seem to be in place. They note that since white dwarfs tend to have weaker magnetic fields, they shed their angular momentum more slowly and would last longer. Although this duration is still far longer than humans can possibly watch, this may indicate that many of the pulsars observed in our own galaxy are white dwarfs.

Next, the authors hope to conclusively identify such a star. The creation of each of these types of pulsars may provide a clue: Since neutron stars form from supernovae, they are surrounded by a shell of gas that contains a shock front from the supernova itself, which is more dense than the interstellar medium in general. As particles pass through this shock front, some of them would be lost. The same would not be said for white dwarfs which formed from a more gentle release and aren’t impeded by the relatively high density area. This shift in energy distributions may be one distinguishing characteristic.

Some stars have even been tentatively proposed as candidates for white dwarf pulsars. AE Aquarii was seen to give off some pulsar-like signals. EUVE J0317-855 is another white dwarf that appears to meet the qualifications, although no signals have been detected from this star. This new class of stars would be able to explain the excess signal in the higher energy range detected by PAMELA and will likely be the target of further observational searches in the future.

Sirius B

Sirius B is the name of the fainter, smaller, less massive star in the Sirius binary system (the brighter, larger, more massive one is Sirius A, or just Sirius). It was hypothesized to exist almost eighteen years before it was actually observed!

Details: Bessel – yep, the guy who Bessel functions are named after – analyzed data on the position of Sirius (Bessel was the one who first observed stellar parallax), in particular its proper motion, and concluded – in 1844 – that there was an unseen companion star (the same principle used to infer the existence of Neptune, around the same time). In 1862 Alvan Clark saw this companion, using the 18.5″ refracting telescope he’d just built (quite a feat; Sirius B is ~10 magnitudes fainter than Sirius A, and separated by only a few arcseconds).

Sirius B is a white dwarf, one of the three “classics”, discovered to be white dwarf stars in the early years of the 20th century (Sirius B was the second to be discovered – 40 Eridani B had been found much earlier, and Procyon B was also hypothesized by Bessel (in 1844) though not observed until much later (in 1896)). It is one of the most massive white dwarfs so far discovered; its mass is the same as that of the Sun (approximately). Like all white dwarfs, it is small (it has a radius of only 0.008, compared with the Sun’s, which makes it smaller than the Earth!); like most seen so far, it is hot (approx 25,000 K).

Sirius B was likely a five sol B star as recently as 60 million years ago (when it was, coincidentally, approximately 60 million years old!), when it entered first a hydrogen shell burning, then a helium shell burning, stage, shed most of its mass (and enriching its companion with lots of ‘metals’ in the process), and shrank to become a white dwarf. There is no fusion taking place in Sirius B’s degenerate carbon/oxygen core (which makes up almost all of the star; there is a thin, non-degenerate, hydrogen atmosphere … this is what we see), so it is slowly cooling (it cools so slowly because it has such a small surface area).

Packing such a large mass into such a small volume means that Sirius B’s surface gravity is huge … so great in fact that it serves as an excellent test of one of the predictions of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity: gravitational redshift (this was first observed in the lab in 1959, by Pound and Rebka). The most recent observation of this gravitational redshift was by the Hubble, in 2005, as described in the Universe Today article Sirius’ White Dwarf Companion Weighed by Hubble.

Other Universe Today stories about Sirius B include White Dwarf Theories Get More Proof, and this 2005 What’s Up This Week one.

Astronomy Cast has two episodes related to Sirius B, Dwarf Stars, and Binary Stars.