‘Failed’ Star Rapidly Orbits ‘Dead’ Star in Weird Stellar Pairing

white-dwarf
ESO

The galaxy may be filled with weird stellar wonders, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a binary system stranger than WD1202-024.

First thought to be an isolated white dwarf star approximately 40% the mass of our sun, astronomers studying observational data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope realized the stellar husk has company. In an extremely fast 71-minute orbit, the star has a brown dwarf, 67 times the mass of Jupiter, in tow — an unprecedented find.

White dwarfs are formed after sun-like stars run out of fuel and die. This will be the fate of our sun in about five billion years time, after it becomes depleted of hydrogen in its core and puffs-up into a red giant. Shedding its outer layers after a period of violent stellar turmoil, a planetary nebula will form with a tiny mass of degenerate matter — a white dwarf — in its center. Earth would be toast long before the sun turns into a red giant, however.

But in the case of WD1202-024, it seems that when it was a young star (before it passed through its final red giant phase), it had a brown dwarf in orbit.

Commonly known as “failed stars,” brown dwarfs are not massive enough to sustain sufficient fusion in their cores to spark the formation of a star. But they’re too massive to be called planets as they possess the internal circulation of material that is more familiar to stars (so with that in mind, I like to refer to brown dwarfs as “overachieving planets”). They are the bridge between stars and planets and fascinating objects in their own right.

But the brown dwarf in the WD1202 binary couldn’t have formed with only a 71-minute orbit around the white dwarf; it would have evolved further away. So what happened? After carrying out computer simulations of the system, the international team of researchers found a possible answer.

“It is similar to an egg-beater effect,” said astronomer Lorne Nelson, of Bishop’s University, Canada, during the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas on June 6th. “The brown dwarf spirals in towards the center of the red giant and causes most of the mass of the red giant to be lifted off of the core and to be expelled. The result is a brown dwarf in an extraordinarily tight, short-period orbit with the hot helium core of the giant. That core then cools and becomes the white dwarf that we observe today.”

In the future, the researchers hypothesize, the brown dwarf will continue to orbit the white dwarf until energy is depleted from the system via gravitational waves. In less than 250 million years, the orbital distance will be so small that the extreme tidal forces exerted by the white dwarf will start to drag brown dwarf material into the star, cannibalizing it.

This will turn WD1202 into a cataclysmic variable (CV), causing its brightness to flicker as the brown dwarf material is extruded into an accretion disk orbiting the white dwarf.

What a way to go.

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What Will Happen When the Sun Turns into a White Dwarf?

Strong tidal interactions are thought to shred any asteroids or comets as they get too close to a white dwarf (NASA)

All the way back in January, I had the great fortune to attend the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) conference in Long Beach, California. I had a lot of fun. However, between the free beer and desperately searching for wireless Internet signal, I also did some work. During my travels, I spent some time browsing the poster sessions, trying to get inspiration for an article or two. You’d think that when presented with hundreds of stunning posters that inspiration wouldn’t be that far away. However, I was repeatedly frustrated by information overload and defaulted to a clueless meander up and down the pathways walled with intense science debates.

But then I saw it, right at the end of one of the poster walls, a question that got my imagination bubbling: “Will The Sun become a Metal Rich White Dwarf After Post Main Sequence Evolution?” The Sun? After the Main Sequence? Metal rich? To be honest, these were questions I’d never really pondered. What would happen when the Sun turns into a white dwarf? Fortunately, I had Dr John Debes to help me out with the answers…
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Small but Mighty: KPD 0005+5106, the 200,000K White Dwarf

Sirius B1 - one of the more famous white dwarf stars (Frank Gregorio)

A white dwarf called KPD 0005+5106 has been identified as the hottest star observed, ever. KPD 0005+5106 lives in the globular cluster M4, 7,200 light years away, and astronomers have always been intrigued by this stellar lightweight as its emissions have previously hinted it was quite toasty. Now, astronomers using data from the defunct NASA Far-Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE), have studied the white dwarf in more detail. KPD 0005+5106 emits radiation in the far-ultraviolet, indicating that its surface has a temperature of 200,000K. This is an unprecedented discovery, far-ultraviolet emissions are usually reserved for superheated stellar coronae. It may be small, but it’s a record-breaker
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