White dwarf stars in a dance of death.
[The binary pair of] white dwarfs are so near they make a complete orbit in just 13 minutes, but they are gradually slipping closer together. About 900,000 years from now – a blink of an eye in astronomical time – they will merge and possibly explode as a supernova. By watching the stars converge, scientists will test both Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the origin of some peculiar supernovae.
The two white dwarfs are circling at a bracing speed of 370 miles per second (600 km/s), or 180 times faster than the fastest jet on Earth. “I nearly fell out of my chair at the telescope when I saw one star change its speed by a staggering 750 miles per second in just a few minutes,” said Smithsonian astronomer Warren Brown, lead author of the paper reporting the find.
The brighter white dwarf contains about a quarter of the Sun’s mass compacted into a Neptune-sized ball, while its companion has more than half the mass of the Sun and is Earth-sized. A penny made of this white dwarf’s material would weigh about 1,000 pounds on Earth. Their mutual gravitational pull is so strong that it deforms the lower-mass star by three percent. If the Earth bulged by the same amount, we would have tides 120 miles high. [emphasis mine]