Friday, September 28, 2007

Eating Stars for Lunch.

It's been a while since I've posted on astronomy, but this is a good one.

Observers using the Swift and Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) satellites have discovered a weird binary system - a neutron star devouring a nearby planet sized mass.

neutron star binaryArtist's Impression of neutron star system

The planet-sized object's minimum mass is only about 7 times the mass of Jupiter. But instead of orbiting a normal star, this low-mass body orbits a rapidly spinning pulsar. It orbits the pulsar every 54.7 minutes at an average distance of only about 230,000 miles (slightly less than the Earth-Moon distance).
"This object is merely the skeleton of a star," says co-discoverer Craig Markwardt of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "The pulsar has eaten away the star’s outer envelope, and all the remains is its helium-rich core."
Astronomers postulate that the original system contained one very massive star, and one between one and three solar masses. The more massive star was very short-lived and ended it's life in a supernova explosion, leaving behind the neutron star.

Then, as the smaller star began to expand into a red giant, the neighboring neutron star's gravitational pull got a hold of it and started to pull material off onto the neutron star.

pulsar close binary
Today, the two objects are so close to each other than the neutron star’s powerful gravity produces a tidal bulge on its companion, siphoning off gas that flows into a disk that surrounds the neutron star. The flow eventually becomes unstable and dumps large quantities of gas onto the neutron star, causing an X-ray outburst. The neutron star has reduced the mass of it's companion to planetary sizes.

Once again, the quote "The universe is not only weirder than we imagine, it's weirder than we can imagine" applies.

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