Researchers discover that a star is being consumed by its smaller, dead neighbor

Kris Holt
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The Sun may be a lone star in our solar system, but about half of all other stars in the Milky Way are part of binary systems, in which two orbit each other. These can have incredibly fast orbital periods: Scientists have found two white dwarfs that take only 5 minutes and 21 seconds to orbit each other. Another binary system is notable for a different reason: one star is feasting on the other.

Some 3,000 light-years away is a binary system that belongs to a class called “cataclysmic variables.” By the way, it’s an awesome term I’ll be using after my next failed cooking experiment. In spatial terms, when a star similar to our sun orbits around a , that is a catastrophic variable. What Notes, “variable” relates to the combined brightness of the two stars changing over time, at least in terms of how we see the system from the ground. These luminosity levels can change significantly, which is where the “cataclysmic” part comes into play.

The two stars in the system in a matter of 8,000 million years orbit each other every 51 minutes. That’s the shortest known orbital period for a cataclysmic variable system. The distance between stars has shrunk over millions of years and they are now closer to each other than we are to the Moon, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and elsewhere have determined. In an article published in Nature this week, researchers claimed that the white dwarf is pulling material from its Sun-like companion.

“It’s an old pair of stars, where one of the two moved, when the stars die of old age, they become white dwarfs, but then this remnant started to eat its partner,” said the MIT astrophysicist and lead author of the study. Article, Kevin Burge. Reuters. “Just before the second could finish its stellar life cycle and become a white dwarf in the way stars normally do, by evolving into a type of star called a red giant, the leftover white dwarf remnant of the first The star interrupted the end of the companion’s life cycle and slowly began to consume it.”

The researchers found that the largest star has a temperature similar to that of the Sun, but has shrunk to about 10 percent of the diameter of our celestial neighbor. It is now the size of Jupiter. The white dwarf is much smaller, having a diameter of about 1.5 times the size of Earth. However, it has a dense core, with a mass about 56 percent that of our Sun.

The white dwarf has been eating hydrogen from the outer layers of the larger star, leaving the latter unusually rich in helium. The larger star is also transforming into a teardrop shape due to the white dwarf’s gravitational pull. That is one of the reasons for the changes in the brightness levels of the binary system.

MIT notes that the system can emit “huge variable flashes of light” as a result of the hydrogen extraction process. He added that, long ago, astronomers believed that these flashes were the consequence of an unknown cataclysm. While we have a clearer understanding of the situation these days, this is further evidence, if need be, that space is cool and scary in equal measure.

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