Researchers discover star being consumed by its smaller, deader neighbor

The Sun may be a solitary star in our solar system, but about half of all other stars in the Milky Way are part of a binary star system in which two orbit each other. These can have incredibly fast orbital times – scientists have found two white dwarfs that take just 5 minutes and 21 seconds to orbit each other. Another binary system is remarkable for a different reason: one star feasts on the other.

About 3,000 light-years away there is a binary system that belongs to a class called catastrophic variables. By the way, that’s an incredible term I’ll use after my next failed cooking experiment. When a star similar to our Sun orbits you closely, that is a catastrophic variable in spatial terms. As notes, “variable” refers to the combined magnitude of the two stars changing over time, at least in terms of how we view the system from Terra Firma. These brightness levels can change significantly, and that’s where the “catastrophic” part comes in.

The two stars in the 8-billion-year-old system in question orbit each other every 51 minutes. This is the shortest known orbital period for a catastrophic variable system. The distance between the stars has narrowed over millions of years and they are now closer together than we are on the moon, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and elsewhere have found. In a publication in Nature This week, researchers indicated that the white dwarf is stealing material from its Sun-like partner.

“It’s an old pair of stars where one of the two has moved on — when stars die of old age, they become white dwarfs — but then this remnant started eating its companion,” the MIT astrophysicist and lead author of the paper said. Kevin Burge Reuters. “Just before the second could complete its stellar life cycle and become a white dwarf, as stars normally do – evolving into a type of star called a red giant – the leftover white dwarf remnant of the first star interrupted the end of the Companion’s life cycle and slowly began consuming it.”

The researchers found that the larger star is similar in temperature to the Sun, but has been reduced to about 10 percent the diameter of our celestial neighbor. It is now roughly the size of Jupiter. The white dwarf is much smaller, having a diameter about 1.5 times that 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 larger star’s outer layers, making the latter unusually rich in helium. The larger star is also turning into a teardrop shape due to the gravitational pull of the white dwarf. This is one reason for the changes in the brightness levels of the binary system.

MIT notes that the system can emit “enormous, variable flashes of light” as a result of the hydrogen sapping process. It added that astronomers long ago believed these flashes were the result of an unknown catastrophe. While we have a clearer understanding of the situation these days, it’s further proof as if it needed space to be chilling and scary in equal measure.

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