ESA’s XMM-Newton space telescope has helped to identify a star and a black hole that orbit each other at the dizzying rate of once every 2.4 hours, smashing the previous record by nearly an hour.
The black hole in this compact pairing, known as MAXI J1659-152, is at least three times more massive than the Sun, while its red dwarf companion star has a mass only 20% that of the Sun. The pair is separated by roughly a million kilometres.
The duo were discovered on 25 September 2010 by NASA’s Swift space telescope and were initially thought to be a gamma-ray burst. Later that day, Japan’s MAXI telescope on the International Space Station found a bright X-ray source at the same place.
The black hole and the star orbit their common centre of mass. Because the star is the lighter object, it lies further from this point and has to travel around its larger orbit at a breakneck speed of two million kilometres per hour – it is the fastest moving star ever seen in an X-ray binary system. On the other hand, the black hole orbits at ‘only’ 150 000 km/h.
Using publicly available data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) have found that six percent of red dwarf stars have habitable, Earth-sized planets. Since red dwarfs are the most common stars in our galaxy, the closest Earth-like planet could be just 13 light-years away.
“We thought we would have to search vast distances to find an Earth-like planet. Now we realize another Earth is probably in our own backyard, waiting to be spotted,” said Harvard astronomer and lead author Courtney Dressing (CfA).
Red dwarf stars are smaller, cooler, and fainter than our Sun. An average red dwarf is only one-third as large and one-thousandth as bright as the Sun. From Earth, no red dwarf is visible to the naked eye.
Despite their dimness, these stars are good places to look for Earth-like planets. Red dwarfs make up three out of every four stars in our galaxy for a total of at least 75 billion. The signal of a transiting planet is larger since the star itself is smaller, so an Earth-sized world blocks more of the star’s disk. And since a planet has to orbit a cool star closer in order to be in the habitable zone, it’s more likely to transit from our point of view.