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Archive for April 22, 2014

‘Upside-Down Planet’ Reveals New Method For Studying Binary Star Systems


Simulation. Credit: NASA

Simulation. Credit: NASA

What looked at first like a sort of upside-down planet has instead revealed a new method for studying binary star systems, discovered by a University of Washington student astronomer.

Working with UW astronomer Eric Agol, doctoral student Ethan Kruse has confirmed the first “self-lensing” binary star system — one in which the mass of the closer star can be measured by how powerfully it magnifies light from its more distant companion star. Though our sun stands alone, about 40 percent of similar stars are in binary (two-star) or multi-star systems, orbiting their companions in a gravitational dance.

Kruse’s discovery confirms an astronomer’s prediction in 1973, based on stellar evolution models of the time, that such a system should be possible. A paper by Kruse and Agol was published in the April 18 edition of Science.

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A Dance Of Black Holes


Artist’s impression of a pair of black holes.  © ESA/C. Carreau

Artist’s impression of a pair of black holes. © ESA/C. Carreau

A pair of supermassive black holes in orbit around one another have been discovered by an international research team including Stefanie Komossa from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany. This is the first time such a pair could be found in an ordinary galaxy. They were discovered because they ripped apart a star when ESA’s space observatory XMM-Newton happened to be looking in their direction.

The findings are published in the May 10 issue of the “Astrophysical Journal”, and appeared online today at the astrophysics preprint server.

Most massive galaxies in the Universe are thought to harbour at least one supermassive black hole at their centre. Two supermassive black holes are the smoking gun that the galaxy has merged with another. Thus, finding binary supermassive black holes can tell astronomers about how galaxies evolved into their present-day shapes and sizes.

To date, only a few candidates for close binary supermassive black holes have been found. All are in active galaxies where they are constantly ripping gas clouds apart, in the prelude to crushing them out of existence.

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