Tag Archives: stellar evolution

The mystery of Tabby’s star deepens

Astronomers looking at the light variations of the star dubbed by some Tabby’s star have become even more baffled.

Spurred by a controversial claim that the star’s brightness gradually decreased by 14 percent from 1890 to 1989, Montet and Simon decided to investigate its behavior in a series of Kepler calibration images that had not previously been used for scientific measurements. “We thought that these data could confirm or refute the star’s long-term fading, and hopefully clarify what was causing the extraordinary dimming events observed in KIC 8462852,” explained Simon.

Simon and Montet found that, over the first three years of the Kepler mission, KIC 8462852 dimmed by almost 1 percent. Its brightness then dropped by an extraordinary 2 percent over just six months, remaining at about that level for the final six months of the mission. The pair then compared this with more than 500 similar stars observed by Kepler and found thata small fraction of them showed fading similar to that seen in KIC 8462852 over the first three years of Kepler images. However, none exhibited such a dramatic dimming in just six months, or a total change in brightness of 3 percent.

“The steady brightness change in KIC 8462852 is pretty astounding,” said Montet. “Our highly accurate measurements over four years demonstrate that the star really is getting fainter with time.  It is unprecedented for this type of star to slowly fade for years, and we don’t see anything else like it in the Kepler data.” 

At the moment, there is no good theory based on what astronomers know of stellar evolution to explain this star’s behavior. This does not mean the only explanation left is that aliens are building a Dyson sphere around the star, but it also leaves everyone at a loss to explain what is happening.

Betelgeuse baffles astronomers

The uncertainty of science: New data of the red giant star Betelgeuse says that the star simply doesn’t have the energy to eject the large amount of gas it routinely blows into space.

“[W]e now have a problem”, says Graham Harper, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado Boulder. “If you’re going to eject matter you have to put energy in, and we’re not seeing that.” Harper and his colleagues used the US–German Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a 2.5-metre telescope that flies in a modified Boeing 747 aeroplane, to take Betelgeuse’s temperature. They found that the star’s upper atmosphere was much cooler than expected — so cool, in fact, that it doesn’t seem to have enough energy to kick gas out of its gravitational pull and into space.

“This challenges all our theoretical models,” Harper said on 7 January at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Kissimmee, Florida. [emphasis mine]

The data suggests the temperature of the ejected gas to be only about 512 degrees Fahrenheit. This is far too cool to fit any theory for explaining the vast amounts of gas that the star routinely puffs into space. It also suggests, not surprisingly, that scientists do not yet have a enough information to develop a clear understanding of stellar evolution. They have enough information to form rough theories, but there is still much too much they do not know.

ALMA detects a solar flare on Mira 420 light years away

Mira A and Mira B

The just completed ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), a collection of 66 antennas located in Chile, has snapped a picture of the variable star Mira with its companion star, detecting details on the primary’s surface, including evidence of a solar flare.

Mira is a star with a mass like our Sun’s, but near the end of its life having evolved into a red giant that is shedding its outer layers. Being able to track its behavior with this kind of detail will allow astronomers to better hone their theories about the life and death of stars, including our own.

Eta Carinae’s next big show

Astronomers are gearing up to observe the next binary fly-by of Eta Carinae’s companion star over the next few weeks.

A binary system, η Carinae has two stars that swing past one another every 5.5 years. The bigger star — some 90 times the mass of the Sun — is incredibly unstable, always seemingly on the verge of blowing up. When the smaller companion star makes its closest approach to the primary star, as is happening now, the interaction between the two triggers violent changes in the high-energy radiation pouring out of the system.

Astronomers are watching the show in the hope of learning what drives this enigmatic system. In the 1840s, η Carinae had a mysterious eruption; in recent decades, it has again brightened unexpectedly. “The star is in an awfully deranged state, and no one knows why,” says Kris Davidson, an astronomer at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Eta Carinae is also famous because it was one of the first objects imaged by Hubble after its repair in 1993, and was thus the first stellar explosion ever caught on camera in a visually sharp and clear manner. (See my book The Universe in a Mirror for that fascinating story.)

An exoplanet that was once like a star

Astronomers, using WISE data, have discovered a strange exoplanet that is now as cool as a rocky planet, but was once as hot as a red dwarf star.

The current temperature of the object is 100-150 degrees Celsius, intermediate between that of the Earth and Venus. But the object shows evidence of a possible ancient origin, implying that a large change in temperature has taken place. In the past this object would have been as hot as a star for many millions of years.

Called WISE J0304-2705, the object is a member of the recently established “Y dwarf” class – the coolest stellar temperature class yet defined, added to the end of the sequence OBAFGKMLT (for historical reasons this is not in alphabetical order but follows a decline in temperature from O to T). Although its temperature is not far off that of our own world, the object is not like the rocky Earth-like planets and instead is a giant ball of gas like Jupiter.

As cool as this discovery is (no pun intended), I am most enlightened by the information in the second paragraph above. I had not realized that astronomers had added L, T, and Y classes to the low temperature end of their stellar classification system. For those new to astronomy, you remember the sequence of the first seven classes with the phrase “O Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me”. I wonder what how we can amend this phrase to include the L, T, Y, classes?

Astronomers have found what they believe is the first evidence of a planet consumed by its star as the star expanded and aged.

Astronomers have found what they believe is the first evidence of a planet consumed by its star as the star expanded and aged.

Sadly, for those of you out there who like the idea of watching planets getting destroyed, the event happened a long time ago, and all the astronomers have is circumstantial evidence that is most likely explained by such an event.

Hubble captures a necklace in space

necklace in space

Who needs aliens and imagined cities on the moon when you have a reality that produces such strange and beautiful things as the image on the right?

On July 2, the Hubble Space Telescope took this image of a planetary nebula, aptly dubbed the Necklace Nebula. As the caption explains,

A pair of stars orbiting close together produced the nebula, also called PN G054.2-03.4. About 10,000 years ago one of the aging stars ballooned to the point where it engulfed its companion star. The smaller star continued orbiting inside its larger companion, increasing the giant’s rotation rate.

The bloated companion star spun so fast that a large part of its gaseous envelope expanded into space. Due to centrifugal force, most of the gas escaped along the star’s equator, producing a ring. The embedded bright knots are dense gas clumps in the ring.

The binary still exists, and can be seen as the star in the center of the necklace. The two stars are now only a few million miles apart and complete an orbit around each other in about a day.