Astronomers have decoded a weird signal coming from a strange, 3-body star system

A 2016 NASA illustration depicts a different brown dwarf, oribiting further away from its host superstar. ( NASA)

Once or twice a day, a unusual object in the Milky Way blinks at us. Now, astronomers think they know why.

The object is called NGTS-7, and to most telescopes it looks like a single star. Researchers at the University of Warwick in England started watching because it seemed to be emitting flares, but on more detailed examination they noticed that its starlight dims briefly every 16.2 hours. When the astronomers zoomed in, they realized there are actually two similarly sized superstars in the system, and that only one of them is dimming briefly in that way — suggesting that there’s something dark circling on or just above the star’s surface. Now, in a article posted to the preprint journal arXiv, the astronomers give an explanation: A brown dwarf is orbiting one of the stars, in an orbit so tight that it takes merely 16.2 hours to complete.

It’s impressive that the astronomers involved were able to parse the complicated signal from this system, untangling where the intermixed daylight from the brown midget and the two tiny, young suns originally collected from, said Hugh Osborn, an astronomer at the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille in France, who was not involved in the research.[ 11 Fascinating Facts About Our Milky way system Galaxy]

To pull it off, the researchers applied a similar technique to that used to detect exoplanets: Measuring how the light dipped as the chocolate-brown dwarf extended between its host sun and Earth. This dip represents the signal of a “transit”: a brief, partial eclipse of the starring by something too small and dim to see immediately, even through a powerful telescope.

“Detecting this system is probably the easy chip, ” Osborn told Live Science. “Because the star is so small and the dark-brown dwarf relatively large, the transit signal is actually about 10 times larger than that of[ a typical exoplanet that turns up in surveys of the darknes sky ]. “

But once you see the transit signal, you have to make sense of it. That’s tricky because chocolate-brown dwarf transit signals are strange. For one thing, they tend to glow faintly from internal heat and the heat of nearby stars.

“The typical chocolate-brown midget temperature is somewhere between luke-warm water, which would appear black to our eyes, and a campfire, which would glow faintly red, ” Osborn said. “In the case of vehicles of[ this system ], the dark-brown dwarf is being heated by the star it orbits, necessitating the dayside of the object would be glowing red hot. The night side would be darker, but some of this heat “couldve been” sucked around by gusts, heating it up.”

Accounting for all these different factors to figure out what you are actually looking at is challenging for astronomers, Osborn said.

Any detection of a dark-brown dwarf is exciting, Osborn said. The objects are several dozens of times larger than Jupiter or thebig exoplanets scientists generally see, but not quite heavy enough to light up with nuclear fusionlike a ace. Because of their large size, they should be easy to spot move in front of aces, Osborn said. But they’re rare: Fewer than 20 have ever been discovered transiting in front of suns like this, and merely about 1,000 have been discovered elsewhere in the galaxy. In comparison, astronomers have already received thousands of exoplanets. For that reason, astronomers talk about there being a kind of “brown dwarf desert, ” at least in the region of space we can clearly observe.

“The fact that we have so few of them … must be because they are extremely rare, and not because we’ve simply missed them, ” Osborn said.

This one is especially weird, even for a chocolate-brown midget, due to its near proximity to its host sun, Osborn said.

It appears to have been nudged into its tight orbit by gravity from the other star in the system.

Now it’s perfectly synchronized with its host superstar, with the two objects spinning and orbiting such that one back of countries around the world always faces one side of the sun, as if they were connected by a string.

It’s interesting, Osborn said, “that the orbit of the dark-brown dwarf appears to have ‘spun up’ the orbit of the star.”

Satellites don’t normally have this impression on their host superstars, Osborn added.

The researchers can tell the two objects are synced in this way because other darkness on that star’s surface, probably sunspots, appear to be co-rotating on that same 16.2 -hour cycle in some observations.( This is more of that trickiness that made this analysis so difficult .)

Over time, health researchers wrote, magnetic forces from the host ace will slacken the brown dwarf’s orbit, making the orbit to shrink and the transits to happen even more regularly. Eventually, in the not-too-distant future( at least in stellar words) the dark-brown dwarf’s orbit should collapse exclusively and it will fall into its host ace. The resulting fireworks demonstrate — illustration a very warm bowling ball slamming into a giant ocean balloon of super-hot plasma — should be breathtaking to behold for the astronomers who are alive when it happens.

In the meantime, Osborn said, he’d like to see researchers double-check that the two true-blue stars in the organizations of the system actually are locked together in their own, wider orbits.

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