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Professor Astronomy

Two stars merge on camera

20 Dec 2010, 20:26 UTC
Two stars merge on camera NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) / H. Bond
(200 words excerpt, click title or image to see full post)

No, it's not the latest celebrity scandal. But a group of astronomers think they may have seen two stars in space spiral together, combine in a rare type of stellar eruption, and combine to make a single star.

Our story begins with a type of event called a nova (plural: novae). Novae are typically thought to be nuclear explosions on the surface of white dwarf stars. White dwarfs are the remains of stars that have used all of their nuclear fuel. If a white dwarf can collect enough hydrogen, such as a very near neighbor star, that hydrogen can begin an uncontrolled nuclear fusion reaction. The result is a dramatic brightening of the white dwarf (sometimes making the otherwise faint star visible to the naked eye). Careful measurements of novae tend to detect debris from the eruption expanding out into space at speeds of thousands of miles per second. The white dwarf escapes more or less unscathed, and usually begins collecting more hydrogen for another explosion decades to centuries later. [Note that novae are different from supernovae, which are tremendous explosions that mark the end of the life of a massive star or the explosion of an entire white dwarf; ...

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