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Archive for June 23, 2014

NOAO: The Coolest Known White Dwarf: A Diamond In The Sky?


“Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky…” A team of astronomers, using multiple telescopes, has identified the coolest, faintest white dwarf star known. White dwarfs are the extremely dense end states of stars like our sun: after their nuclear fuel is exhausted, they collapse from the size of a star (about 1,000,000 miles across) to the size of the Earth (7,000 miles across). This white dwarf, located in the constellation Aquarius, is so cool that its carbon has crystallized—in other words, it’s like a diamond, with a mass similar to that of our sun.

The path to this discovery began when Dr. Jason Boyles, then a graduate student at West Virginia University, identified what astronomers refer to as a millisecond pulsar in this location. Pulsars are spinning neutron stars—the collapsed end state of a star many times more massive than our sun, but only about 20 miles across. Known as PSR J2222-0137, which simply identifies its position in the sky, this pulsar is spinning over 30 times a second. Its orientation is such that as it spins, a beam from its magnetic pole sweeps repeatedly past the earth, giving rise to regular blips of radio waves. (The pulsar is detected only in radio waves, not in visible light.) The observations also revealed that this pulsar is gravitationally bound to a companion star: the two orbit around each other every 2.45 days. It is this companion object that appears to be either another neutron star or, more likely, a remarkably cool white dwarf.

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