Scientists Discover ‘Terrifying’ Star Pair Orbiting Each Other In Less Than An Hour

Scientists Discover 'Terrifying' Star Pair Orbiting Each Other In Less Than An Hour
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Scientists have discovered a pair of stars locked in an incredibly close orbit orbiting each other every 51 minutes – and they will only accelerate, according to the results of a new study.

The universe is a chaotic place when it comes to orbital mechanics. Our solar system is a bit vanilla when viewed in relation to the rest of the cosmos. We have eight orbiting central stars – the Sun. the major planets are accompanied by many moons in the heavens and different levels of impressiveness.

But astronomers have discovered that roughly half of the star systems in our Milky Way are actually made up of multiple gravitationally bound stars. The Alpha Centauri system, the closest neighboring star population to our Sun, is actually a system of three stars orbiting each other about 4 light-years. from the world.

Stars are among the most massive and dynamic bodies in the universe, and therefore, naturally, binary star systems can have quite extreme properties.

In a new study, a team of scientists has discovered a rare double star known as the ‘terrifying variable’ that completes each other’s full orbits in less than an hour.

A catastrophic variable is a system in which a superdense white dwarf star orbits another stellar body similar to our Sun. White dwarfs are the planet-sized cores of stars that have exhausted their nuclear fuel and ejected their outer layers.

In a terrifying variable system, a superdense white dwarf orbits a companion star so closely that its gravity actually allows it to steal hydrogen from the atmosphere of the larger stellar body.

Artist's impression of a disastrous binary system (Credit: M.Weiss/Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian)

Artist’s impression of a disastrous binary system (Credit: M.Weiss/Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian)

The newly discovered star system, imaginatively named ZTF J1813+4251, was first discovered by researchers involved in the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) survey. The catalog contains high-resolution images of over a billion stars and tracks changes in their apparent brightness over time.

Kevin Burge, one of the authors of the new study published in the journal scientific journal Nature, He used a computer algorithm to sort through the ZTF catalog to find flares in the light signature of distant objects, indicating the presence of two closely orbiting stars.

This search flagged nearly 1 million stars from a billion-strong database. ZTF J1813+4251 stood out among the candidates, with flashes of light from a distant source suggesting a binary system.

Follow-up observations by the mighty Gran Telescopio Canarias in Spain and the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii distinguished the radii, masses and orbits of the two strange stars.

ZTF J1813+4251 turned out to be a likely catastrophic variable, consisting of a geriatric star roughly the size of Jupiter with a mass of 1/10 the mass of our Sun. This stellar body orbits an ultra-dense white dwarf that has roughly half the mass of our Sun and is located within 1/100th of its volume. Press release From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Incredibly, these two stellar bodies seem to orbit each other every 51 minutes – giving them the shortest orbit of any catastrophic variable discovered to date.

The researchers took the data on ZTF J1813+4251 and used it to simulate the duo’s possible evolutionary path stretching over a hundred million years into the future. The results show that the stars are currently in a transitional phase where the white dwarf is removing large amounts of hydrogen from the atmosphere of the larger star.

This process will likely continue until all that remains is a helium dominant core. Over the next 70 million years, this dense core will pull the pair into an even tighter orbital period of just 18 minutes. The results support an earlier study that predicted this behavior from catastrophic variables.

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Anthony Wood is self-employed. Science writer for IGN

Image Credit: Credit: M.Weiss/Center for Astrophysics | Harvard and Smithsonian

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