Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

'Upside-Down Planet' Reveals New Method for Studying Binary Star Systems

23.04.2014

What looked at first like a sort of upside-down planet has instead revealed a new method for studying binary star systems, discovered by a University of Washington student astronomer.

Working with UW astronomer Eric Agol, doctoral student Ethan Kruse has confirmed the first "self-lensing" binary star system — one in which the mass of the closer star can be measured by how powerfully it magnifies light from its more distant companion star. Though our sun stands alone, about 40 percent of similar stars are in binary (two-star) or multi-star systems, orbiting their companions in a gravitational dance.

Kruse's discovery confirms an astronomer's prediction in 1973, based on stellar evolution models of the time, that such a system should be possible. A paper by Kruse and Agol was published in the April 18 edition of Science.

Like so many interesting discoveries, this one happened largely by accident.

Astronomers detect planets too far away for direct observation by the dimming in light when a world passes in front of, or transits, its host star. Kruse was looking for transits others might have missed in data from the planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope when he saw something in the binary star system KOI-3278 that didn't make sense.

"I found what essentially looked like an upside-down planet," Kruse said. "What you normally expect is this dip in brightness, but what you see in this system is basically the exact opposite — it looks like an anti-transit."

The two stars of KOI-3278, about 2,600 light-years (a light-year is 5.88 trillion miles) away in the Lyra constellation, take turns being nearer to Earth as they orbit each other every 88.18 days. They are about 43 million miles apart, roughly the distance the planet Mercury is from the sun. The white dwarf, a cooling star thought to be in the final stage of life, is about Earth's size but 200,000 times more massive.

That increase in light, rather than the dip Kruse thought he'd see, was the white dwarf bending and magnifying light from its more distant neighbor through gravitational lensing, like a magnifying glass.

"The basic idea is fairly simple," Agol said. "Gravity warps space and time and as light travels toward us it actually gets bent, changes direction. So, any gravitational object — anything with mass — acts as a magnifying glass," though a weak one. "You really need large distances for it to be effective."

"The cool thing, in this case, is that the lensing effect is so strong, we are able to use that to measure the mass of the closer, white dwarf star. And instead of getting a dip now you get a brightening through the gravitational magnification."

This finding improves on research in 2013 by the California Institute of Technology, which detected a similar self-lensing effect minus the brightening of the light because the two stars being studied were much closer together.

"The effect in this system is much stronger," said Agol. "The larger the distance, the more the effect."

Gravitational lensing is a common tool in astronomy. It has been used to detect planets around distant stars within the Milky Way galaxy, and was among the first methods used to confirm Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity. Lensing within the Milky Way galaxy, such as this, is called microlensing.

But until now, the process had only been used in the fleeting instances of a nearby and distant star, not otherwise associated in any way, aligning just right, before going their separate ways again.

"The chance is really improbable," said Agol. "As those two stars go through the galaxy they'll never come back again, so you see that microlensing effect once and it never repeats. In this case, though, because the stars are orbiting each other, it repeats every 88 days."

White dwarfs are important to astronomy, and are used as indicators of age in the galaxy, the astronomers said. Basically embers of burned-out stars, white dwarfs cool off at a specific rate over time. With this lensing, astronomers can learn with much greater precision what its mass and temperature are, and follow-up observations may yield its size.

By expanding their understanding of white dwarfs, astronomers take a step closer to learning about the age of the galaxy.

"This is a very significant achievement for a graduate student," Agol said.

The two have sought time to use the Hubble Space Telescope to study KOI-3278 in more detail, and to see if there are other such star systems waiting to be discovered in the Kepler data.

"If everyone's missed this one, then there could be many more that everyone's missed as well," said Kruse.

###

The research was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation (#AST 0645416) and NASA (#12-OSS12-0011). For more information, contact Agol at 206-543-7106 or agol@astro.washington.edu; or Kruse at 845-499-1384 or eakruse@uw.edu

Contact Information

ROM: Peter Kelley
University of Washington
206-543-2580
kellep@uw.edu

Peter Kelley | newswise
Further information:
http://www.uw.edu

Further reports about: Binary Kepler Planet Space Telescope astronomy dwarf glass gravitational mass observations specific

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht LIGO confirms RIT's breakthrough prediction of gravitational waves
12.02.2016 | Rochester Institute of Technology

nachricht Milestone in physics: gravitational waves detected with the laser system from LZH
12.02.2016 | Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V.

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Production of an AIDS vaccine in algae

Today, plants and microorganisms are heavily used for the production of medicinal products. The production of biopharmaceuticals in plants, also referred to as “Molecular Pharming”, represents a continuously growing field of plant biotechnology. Preferred host organisms include yeast and crop plants, such as maize and potato – plants with high demands. With the help of a special algal strain, the research team of Prof. Ralph Bock at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam strives to develop a more efficient and resource-saving system for the production of medicines and vaccines. They tested its practicality by synthesizing a component of a potential AIDS vaccine.

The use of plants and microorganisms to produce pharmaceuticals is nothing new. In 1982, bacteria were genetically modified to produce human insulin, a drug...

Im Focus: The most accurate optical single-ion clock worldwide

Atomic clock experts from the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) are the first research group in the world to have built an optical single-ion clock which attains an accuracy which had only been predicted theoretically so far. Their optical ytterbium clock achieved a relative systematic measurement uncertainty of 3 E-18. The results have been published in the current issue of the scientific journal "Physical Review Letters".

Atomic clock experts from the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) are the first research group in the world to have built an optical single-ion clock...

Im Focus: Goodbye ground control: autonomous nanosatellites

The University of Würzburg has two new space projects in the pipeline which are concerned with the observation of planets and autonomous fault correction aboard satellites. The German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy funds the projects with around 1.6 million euros.

Detecting tornadoes that sweep across Mars. Discovering meteors that fall to Earth. Investigating strange lightning that flashes from Earth's atmosphere into...

Im Focus: Flow phenomena on solid surfaces: Physicists highlight key role played by boundary layer velocity

Physicists from Saarland University and the ESPCI in Paris have shown how liquids on solid surfaces can be made to slide over the surface a bit like a bobsleigh on ice. The key is to apply a coating at the boundary between the liquid and the surface that induces the liquid to slip. This results in an increase in the average flow velocity of the liquid and its throughput. This was demonstrated by studying the behaviour of droplets on surfaces with different coatings as they evolved into the equilibrium state. The results could prove useful in optimizing industrial processes, such as the extrusion of plastics.

The study has been published in the respected academic journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).

Im Focus: New study: How stable is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet?

Exceeding critical temperature limits in the Southern Ocean may cause the collapse of ice sheets and a sharp rise in sea levels

A future warming of the Southern Ocean caused by rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere may severely disrupt the stability of the West...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Symposium on Climate Change Adaptation in Africa 2016

12.02.2016 | Event News

Travel grants available: Meet the world’s most proficient mathematicians and computer scientists

09.02.2016 | Event News

AKL’16: Experience Laser Technology Live in Europe´s Largest Laser Application Center!

02.02.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

LIGO confirms RIT's breakthrough prediction of gravitational waves

12.02.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

Gene switch may repair DNA and prevent cancer

12.02.2016 | Life Sciences

Using 'Pacemakers' in spinal cord injuries

12.02.2016 | Medical Engineering

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>