New Fast-Spinning Binary Star System Discovered

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Grad Student at Caltech Discovers New Binary Star System

It seems like the plot to a movie. Though, Caltech grad student Keven Burdge probably won’t get as rich and famous as Jodie Foster. While tediously sifting through months of data from the university’s Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), he found a blinking pattern. After diligently studying the data, Burdge and his co-authors found that the pattern was actually a signal of alien intelligence a pair of white dwarf stars locked in a rapid orbit. Okay, so that’s where the movie similarity ends. It’s still a hell of a discovery, though. White dwarfs are stars like our sun that have died – meaning they’ve burned through all of their fuel. This particular binary star system orbits once every seven minutes or so. That makes it the second-fastest binary star system discovered so far.

Binary Star Systems are Everywhere, but This One is Unique

According to the Australian Telescope National Facility (ATNF), around 85% on the stars in the universe are thought to be in binary systems. This pair, named ZTF J1539+5027, share several features that make them a bit more uncommon. First, both stars are white dwarfs that have collapsed down to around the size of Earth, though one is slightly smaller. Second, their orbit, as mentioned above, is the second-fastest observed so far at around seven minutes. The fastest, by the way, was 5.4 minutes

Two other features stand out with this system. For one thing, the similarity of the stars’ size means that this is the fastest binary system we’ve found where a total eclipse of one body can be observed from the earth. Then, there’s the temperature. The smaller of these two suns is burning at about 50,000 Kelvin. That’s ten times hotter than our sun. All of that heat means that the system is brighter, which made it easier to spot, according to Burdge. Most other systems of this size, he said, are much cooler and dimmer.

When Binary Star Systems Collide

If you’re not an astrophysicist, but rather a mere space enthusiast like myself, you might think the fast orbit of these stars means they’ll collide soon. Well, I guess that depends on your definition of soon.

Binary star systems do collide occasionally. In fact, in about three years, we’ll get to see one. ZTF J1539+5027, however, will probably stay locked in their amorous dalliance for another 200,000 years. That’s the cosmic equivalent to the blink of an eye. Then again, there’s also the possibility that in half that time, they’ll be close enough that the denser body will pull matter from the other. In that scenario, the orbit may stabilize and last a lot longer. 

When two very dense objects collide, it’s usually really cool. So the 2022 event will definitely be one to watch out for. In the meantime, we’re left to study the gravitational waves made by ZTF J1539+5027. In 2034, the European Space Agency will launch LISA, a spacecraft designed to do just that. Studying the gravitational waves allows us to determine the system’s distance from the earth more precisely.

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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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