Scientists have discovered a new star system in the Milky Way. Shaped like a pinwheel, the star system is known as a Wolf-Rayet star system and it has intrigued the scientists who discovered it.
"Aside from the stunning image, the most remarkable thing about this star system is the way the expansion of its beautiful dust spiral left us totally stumped," Yinuo Han, lead study author , said in a statement. Han is an honors student in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney in Australia. "The dust seems to have a mind of its own, floating along much slower than the extreme stellar winds that should be driving it."
The scientists named the system Apep, after the Egyptian god of Chaos. They thought the name Apep was fitting because the dust plume looked like a serpent battling the central star. These rare events are created by two massive stars, each larger than our sun, that orbit each other, as well as a single companion star bound to them by gravity. The two stars release huge amounts of carbon dust, which whirls around in the stellar winds created by the stars. The stars orbit each other, causing the dust to look like a dusky, glowing tail. It's a beautiful sight, but it means the stars are doomed to go supernova and become a black hole.
"They are ticking time bombs," said Peter Tuthill in a statement, study coauthor and professor at the University of Sydney. "As well as exhibiting all the usual extreme behavior of Wolf-Rayets, Apep's main star looks to be rapidly rotating. This means it could have all the ingredients to detonate a long gamma-ray burst when it goes supernova."
The researchers were able to use the high-resolution imaging capabilities at the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile to study the system.
"The magnification required to produce the imagery was like seeing a chickpea on a table 50 kilometers (31 miles) away," Han said.
"There has been a flurry of research into Wolf-Rayet star systems: these really are the peacocks of the stellar world," said Joe Callingham in a statement, study coauthor in postdoctoral position at Leiden University in the Netherlands. "Discoveries about these elegantly beautiful, but potentially dangerous objects, is causing a real buzz in astronomy."