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Young stars' flickering light reveals remarkable link with matter-eating black holes


University of Leicester researcher involved in international study into universal physics

An international team of astronomers, including Dr Simon Vaughan from the University of Leicester's Department of Physics and Astronomy, has discovered a previously unknown link between the way young stars grow and the way black holes and other exotic space objects feed from their surroundings.

An accretion disc around a black hole.

Credit: University of Leicester

The study, 'Accretion-induced variability links young stellar objects, white dwarfs, and black holes', which is published in the journal Science Advances, shows how the 'flickering' in the visible brightness of young stellar objects (YSOs) - very young stars in the final stages of formation - is similar to the flickering seen from black holes or white dwarfs as they violently pull matter from their surroundings in a process known as accretion.

The researchers found that relatively cool accretion discs around young stars, whose inner edges can be several times the size of the Sun, show the same behaviour as the hot, violent accretion discs around planet-sized white dwarfs, city-sized black holes and supermassive black holes as large as the entire Solar system, supporting the universality of accretion physics.

The study found a relationship between the size of the central object and the speed of the flickering produced by the disc, suggesting the physics of the accretion must be very similar around these different astronomical objects despite them being completely different in other ways, such as size, age, temperature and gravity.

Dr Simon Vaughan, Reader in Observational Astronomy at the University of Leicester's Department of Physics and Astronomy, explained: "The seemingly random fluctuations we see from the black holes and white dwarfs look remarkably similar to those from the young stellar objects - it is only the tempo that changes."

The new observations were obtained with Kepler/K2 and ULTRACAM, examining accreting white dwarfs and young stellar objects.

Accretion discs are responsible for the growth and evolution of most celestial objects, from young protostars still in the star forming process to ancient supermassive black holes at the centre of galaxies.

NASA's Kepler/K2 telescope can 'listen' to the seemingly random brightness variations produced by accretion discs, revealing how they all sound the same once scaled by their physical size.

Accretion therefore is a universal process operating in the same way across all astrophysical objects.

The study was led by Simone Scaringi, a Humboldt Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany.

The UK universities involved in the project are the University of Leicester, the University of Southampton, the University of Warwick and the University of Sheffield.


The initial study received funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

The study, 'Accretion-induced variability links young stellar objects, white dwarfs, and black holes', which is published in the journal Science Advances, is available at:

Notes to editors:

For more information please contact Dr Simon Vaughan on or call 0116 252 2074.

About the University of Leicester

The University of Leicester is a leading UK University committed to international excellence through the creation of world changing research and high quality, inspirational teaching. Leicester is consistently one of the UK's most socially inclusive universities with a long-standing commitment to providing fairer and equal access to higher education. Leicester is a three-time winner of the Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education and is the only University to win seven consecutive awards from the Times Higher. Leicester is ranked among the top one per-cent of universities in the world by the THE World University Rankings.

About the University of Southampton

Through world-leading research and enterprise activities, the University of Southampton connects with businesses to create real-world solutions to global issues. Through its educational offering, it works with partners around the world to offer relevant, flexible education, which trains students for jobs not even thought of. This connectivity is what sets Southampton apart from the rest; we make connections and change the world.

Media Contact

Dr. Simon Vaughan


Dr. Simon Vaughan | EurekAlert!

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