A sub-stellar Jonah: Brown dwarf survives being swallowed

Aug 02, 2006

Using ESO's Very Large Telescope, astronomers have discovered a rather unusual system, in which two planet-size stars, of different colours, orbit each other. One is a rather hot white dwarf, weighing a little bit less than half as much as the Sun. The other is a much cooler, 55 Jupiter-masses brown dwarf.

"Such a system must have had a very troubled history", said Pierre Maxted, lead author of the paper that reports the study in this week's issue of Nature. "Its existence proves that the brown dwarf came out almost unaltered from an episode in which it was swallowed by a red giant."

The two objects, separated by less than 2/3 of the radius of the Sun or only a few thousandths of the distance between the Earth and the Sun, rotate around each other in about 2 hours. The brown dwarf moves on its orbit at the amazing speed of 800 000 km/h!

The two stars were not so close in their past. Only when the solar-like star that has now become a white dwarf was a red giant, did the separation between the two objects diminish drastically. During this fleeting moment, the giant engulfed its companion. The latter, feeling a large drag similar to trying to swim in a bath full of oil, spiralled in towards the core of the giant. The envelope of the giant was finally ejected, leaving a binary system in which the companion is in a close orbit around a white dwarf.

"Had the companion been less than 20 Jupiter masses, it would have evaporated during this phase", said Maxted."

The brown dwarf shouldn't rejoice too quickly to have escaped this doom, however. Einstein's General Theory of Relativity predicts that the separation between the two stars will slowly decrease.

"Thus, in about 1.4 billion years, the orbital period will have decreased to slightly more than one hour", said Ralf Napiwotzki, from the University of Hertfordshire (UK) and co-author of the study. "At that stage, the two objects will be so close that the white dwarf will work as a giant "vacuum cleaner", drawing gas off its companion, in a cosmic cannibal act."

The low mass companion to the white dwarf (named WD0137-349) was found using spectra taken with EMMI at ESO's New Technology Telescope at La Silla. The astronomers then used the UVES spectrograph on ESO's Very Large Telescope to record 20 spectra and so measure the period and the mass ratio.

Source: European Southern Observatory

Explore further: The riddle of galactic thin–thick disk solved

Related Stories

European physicist discusses Higgs boson at Brown University

2 hours ago

The head of the European Organization for Nuclear Research says the historic 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson particle and the particle accelerator that detected it are getting scientists closer to understanding the creation ...

IBM earnings dip as sales fall again

2 hours ago

Technology heavyweight IBM reported Monday lower profits in the first quarter following another drop in revenues, this time partly due to the strong dollar.

Recommended for you

The riddle of galactic thin–thick disk solved

Apr 24, 2015

A long-standing puzzle regarding the nature of disk galaxies has finally been solved by a team of astronomers led by Ivan Minchev from the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP), using state-of-the-art ...

Giant cosmic tsunami wakes up comatose galaxies

Apr 24, 2015

Galaxies are often found in clusters, with many 'red and dead' neighbours that stopped forming stars in the distant past. Now an international team of astronomers, led by Andra Stroe of Leiden Observatory ...

Astronomers find runaway galaxies

Apr 23, 2015

We know of about two dozen runaway stars, and have even found one runaway star cluster escaping its galaxy forever. Now, astronomers have spotted 11 runaway galaxies that have been flung out of their homes ...

Celestial fireworks celebrate Hubble's 25th anniversary

Apr 23, 2015

The glittering tapestry of young stars flaring to life in this new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image aptly resembles an exploding shell in a fireworks display. This vibrant image of the star cluster Westerlund ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.