Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Astronomers explain blue stragglers: How do mysterious stars stay so young?

Date:
October 21, 2011
Source:
Northwestern University
Summary:
Mysterious "blue stragglers" are old stars that appear younger than they should be: they burn hot and blue. Several theories have attempted to explain why they don't show their age, but, until now, scientists have lacked the crucial observations with which to test each hypothesis. Armed with such observational data, astronomers now report that a mechanism known as mass transfer explains the origins of the blue stragglers.

An artist’s conception showing a blue straggler being created by mass transfer in a binary star system. The giant star, seen in red, has lost hold of its outer envelope. This material is pulled towards its partner, forming an accretion disk, and is eventually consumed by the “proto-blue straggler."
Credit: Illustration by Aaron Geller

Mysterious "blue stragglers" are old stars that appear younger than they should be: they burn hot and blue. Several theories have attempted to explain why they don't show their age, but, until now, scientists have lacked the crucial observations with which to test each hypothesis.

Armed with such observational data, two astronomers from Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison report that a mechanism known as mass transfer explains the origins of the blue stragglers. Essentially, a blue straggler eats up the mass, or outer envelope, of its giant-star companion. This extra fuel allows the straggler to continue to burn and live longer while the companion star is stripped bare, leaving only its white dwarf core.

The scientists report their evidence in a study to be published Oct. 20 by the journal Nature.

The majority of blue stragglers in their study are in binaries: they have a companion star. "It's really the companion star that helped us determine where the blue straggler comes from," said Northwestern astronomer Aaron M. Geller, first author of the study. "The companion stars orbit at periods of about 1,000 days, and we have evidence that the companions are white dwarfs. Both point directly to an origin from mass transfer."

Geller is the Lindheimer Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) and the department of physics and astronomy in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Robert Mathieu, professor of astronomy and chair of the astronomy department at UW-Madison, is co-author of the study.

The astronomers studied the NGC 188 open cluster, which is in the constellation Cepheus, situated in the sky near Polaris, the North Star. This cluster is one of the most ancient open star clusters, but it features these mysterious young blue stragglers.

The cluster has around 3,000 stars, all about the same age, and has 21 blue stragglers. Geller and Mathieu are the first to use detailed observational data from the WIYN Observatory in Tucson, Ariz., of the blue stragglers in NGC 188.

They used the information to analyze and compare the three main theories of blue straggler formation: collisions between stars, mergers of stars and mass transfer from one star to another. The only one left standing was the theory of mass transfer.

The light from the blue stragglers' companion stars is not actually visible in Geller and Mathieu's observations. While the companions haven't been seen directly, their effect on the blue stragglers is evident: each companion pulls gravitationally on its blue straggler and creates a "wobble" as it orbits, and this allows astronomers to measure the mass of the companion stars. The WIYN data show that each companion star is about half the mass of the sun, which is consistent with a white dwarf.

The other two origin theories -- collisions and mergers -- require the companion stars to be more massive than what is observed. In fact, in both scenarios, some of the companion stars could be bright enough to be visible in the WIYN data, which is not the case.

"We think we have a good understanding of stellar evolution, but it doesn't predict blue stragglers," Geller said. "People have been trying to explain the origin of blue stragglers since their discovery in 1953, and now we have the detailed observations needed to identify how they were created. I've always enjoyed trying to get to the bottom of a mystery."

"As so often happens in astronomy, it is the objects that you don't see that provide the critical clues," said Mathieu, an expert on binary stars. "Now we will use the Hubble Space Telescope to search for the ultraviolet light in which white dwarf secondary stars shine."

Geller, Mathieu and their colleagues will have, in about a year's time, observations from Hubble that will tell them if the blue stragglers' companions are indeed white dwarfs.

The NGC 188 data set was collected during the last decade by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz., as part of the WIYN Open Cluster Study led by Mathieu. The observatory is operated by UW-Madison, Indiana University, Yale University and the National Optical Astronomical Observatory (NOAO).

NOAO is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

The National Science Foundation, the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium and the Lindheimer Fellowship at Northwestern University supported the research.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Northwestern University. The original article was written by Megan Fellman. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Aaron M. Geller, Robert D. Mathieu. A mass transfer origin for blue stragglers in NGC 188 as revealed by half-solar-mass companions. Nature, 2011; 478 (7369): 356 DOI: 10.1038/nature10512

Cite This Page:

Northwestern University. "Astronomers explain blue stragglers: How do mysterious stars stay so young?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 October 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111020024437.htm>.
Northwestern University. (2011, October 21). Astronomers explain blue stragglers: How do mysterious stars stay so young?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 23, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111020024437.htm
Northwestern University. "Astronomers explain blue stragglers: How do mysterious stars stay so young?." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111020024437.htm (accessed September 23, 2014).

Share This



More Space & Time News

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

NASA's MAVEN Spacecraft Has Finally Reached Mars

NASA's MAVEN Spacecraft Has Finally Reached Mars

Newsy (Sep. 22, 2014) After a 10-month voyage through space, NASA's MAVEN spacecraft is now orbiting the Red Planet. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: SpaceX Rocket Carries 3-D Printer to Space

Raw: SpaceX Rocket Carries 3-D Printer to Space

AP (Sep. 22, 2014) A SpaceX Rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying a custom-built 3-D printer into space. NASA envisions astronauts one day using the printer to make their own spare parts. (Sept. 22) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
SpaceX Cargo Ship Blasts Off Toward Space Station

SpaceX Cargo Ship Blasts Off Toward Space Station

AFP (Sep. 21, 2014) SpaceX's unmanned Dragon cargo ship blasts off toward the International Space Station, carrying a load of supplies and science experiments for the astronauts living there. Duration: 00:35 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
NASA's MAVEN To Study Martian Atmosphere

NASA's MAVEN To Study Martian Atmosphere

Newsy (Sep. 21, 2014) NASA's Maven will soon give information that could explain what happened to Mars' atmosphere. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Space & Time

Matter & Energy

Computers & Math

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins