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 New quantum liquid crystals may play role in future of computers
21.04.2017 | California Institute of Technology

nachricht Light rays from a supernova bent by the curvature of space-time around a galaxy
21.04.2017 | Stockholm University

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: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

Im Focus: Quantum-physical Model System

Computer-assisted methods aid Heidelberg physicists in reproducing experiment with ultracold atoms

Two researchers at Heidelberg University have developed a model system that enables a better understanding of the processes in a quantum-physical experiment...

Im Focus: Glacier bacteria’s contribution to carbon cycling

Glaciers might seem rather inhospitable environments. However, they are home to a diverse and vibrant microbial community. It’s becoming increasingly clear that they play a bigger role in the carbon cycle than previously thought.

A new study, now published in the journal Nature Geoscience, shows how microbial communities in melting glaciers contribute to the Earth’s carbon cycle, a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

7th International Conference on Crystalline Silicon Photovoltaics in Freiburg on April 3-5, 2017

03.04.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

New quantum liquid crystals may play role in future of computers

21.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

A promising target for kidney fibrosis

21.04.2017 | Health and Medicine

Light rays from a supernova bent by the curvature of space-time around a galaxy

21.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>