Space

December 12, 2012

NASA Astrobiology Institute shows how wide binary stars form

Using computer simulations, scientists from the NASA Astrobiology Institute team at the University of Hawaii are shedding light on a question that has challenged astronomers for years: What causes wide binary stars?

Binary stars are pairs of stars that orbit each other. Wide binary stars are separated by as much as one light-year in their orbits, farther apart than some stellar nurseries are wide. Astronomers have known about such distant pairs for a long time but have not understood how they form.

Researchers simulated the complex motions of newborn triple stars still embedded in their nascent cloud cores. They studied the motions 180,000 times and concluded the widest binary systems began as three stars, not just two. This research appears in a paper to be published in the Dec. 13 issue of the journal Nature and was released last week online.

Most stars are born in small, compact systems with two or more stars at the center of a cloud core. When more than two stars share a small space, they gravitationally pull on each other in a chaotic dance. The least massive star often is kicked to the outskirts of the cloud core while the remaining stars grow larger and closer by feeding on the dense gas at the center of the cloud core.

If the force of the kick is not forecful enough, the runt star will not escape, but instead begin a very wide orbit of the other two, creating a wide binary. However, sometimes astronomers find only two stars in a wide binary. This means either the star system formed differently or something happened to one of the original binary pair.

“What may have happened is that the stars in the close binary merged into a single larger star,” said the paper’s lead author, Bo Reipurth of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “This can happen if there is enough gas in the cloud core to provide resistance to their motion. As the two stars in the close binary move around each other surrounded by gas, they lose energy and spiral toward each other. Sometimes there is so much gas in the core that the two close stars spiral all the way in and collide with each other in a spectacular merging explosion.”

The wide binary nearest to Earth is Alpha Centauri. The star itself is a close binary. Alpha Centauri has a small companion, Proxima Centauri, which orbits at a distance of about one-quarter of a light-year, or 15,000 times the distance between Earth and the sun. All three stars were born close together several billion years ago, before a powerful dynamic kick sent Proxima out into its wide path, where it has been orbiting ever since.

NASA’s Kepler mission already has proven that more than one planet can form and persist in the stressful realm of a binary star, a testament to the diversity of planetary systems in our galaxy.

NASA supported the University of Hawaii work through a cooperative agreement with NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and the NASA Astrobiology Institute, which is a partnership between NASA, 15 U.S. teams, and 10 international consortia. The research on wide binary stars included the University of Turku in Finland.

 




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 
Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover arrives at Martian mountain

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has reached the Red Planet’s Mount Sharp, a Mount-Rainier-size mountain at the center of the vast Gale Crater and the rover mission’s long-term prime destination. “Curiosity n...
 
 

NASA announces 2014 aeronautics scholarship recipients

NASA has selected 20 students from across the nation to receive the agency’s Aeronautics Scholarship for the 2014-2015 school year. This scholarship program, which is in its seventh year, is designed to assist undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in fields of study related to aeronautics. Recipients were selected from hundreds of applications to the program....
 
 
NASA photograph by Dan Casper

NASA’s Orion spacecraft nears completion, ready for fueling

NASA photograph by Dan Casper The Orion crew module, stacked atop its service module, moved out of the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept 11. Orion was transporte...
 

 

NASA awards cross-track infrared sounder instrument for the JPSS-2

NASA has awarded a sole source contract modification to Exelis, Inc., Geospatial Systems, of Fort Wayne, Ind., for the Cross-track Infrared Sounder Instrument for flight on the Joint Polar Satellite System-2 mission. This is a cost-plus-award-fee modification in the amount of $221 million. This action extends the period of performance of the contract from November...
 
 
NASA photograph

NASA unveils world’s largest spacecraft welding tool for Space Launch System

NASA photograph A 16mm fisheye lens was used to show a wide angle view of the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept 12. The VAC is the largest spacecraft...
 
 
boeing-satellite

Boeing receives first order for 502 Phoenix small satellite

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Boeing has received its first commercial order for the 502 Phoenix small satellite from HySpecIQ of Washington, D.C. The satellites will carry the commercial remote sensing industry’s first high...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>