Illustration of the white dwarf and its companion HD49798. If it was possible to look at the system up-close, it would look something like this. Credits: Francesco Mereghetti, background image: NASA, ESA and T.M. Brown (STScI)
The mass determination is reliable because the XMM–Newton tracking data allowed the astronomers to use the most robust method for ‘weighing’ a star, one that uses the gravitational physics devised by Isaac Newton in the 17th century. Most likely, the white dwarf has grown to its unusual mass by stealing gas from its companion star, a process known as accretion. At 1.3 solar masses, the white dwarf is now close to a dangerous limit.
When it grows larger than 1.4 solar masses, a white dwarf is thought to either explode, or collapse to form an even more compact object called a neutron star. The explosion of a white dwarf is the leading explanation for type Ia supernovae, bright events that are used as standard beacons by astronomers to measure the expansion of the Universe. Until now, astronomers have not been able to find an accreting white dwarf in a binary system where the mass could be determined so accurately.
Our descendants are in for quite a show. Thanks to XMM-Newton, we can already start looking forward to it.
Norbert Schartel | alfa
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