NASA: Two white dwarf stars to merge

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Sci/Tech

A scientist using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has found evidence that two white dwarf stars are orbiting each other in a death grip, destined to merge. The data indicate that gravitational waves are carrying energy away from the star system at a prodigious rate - making it a prime candidate for future missions designed to directly detect these subtle ripples in space-time.

Einstein's General Theory of Relativity predicts that a binary star system should emit gravitational waves, which rush away at the speed of light and cause the stars to move closer together. The orbital period of this system, known as RX J0806.3+1527, or J0806, is decreasing by 1.2 milliseconds every year, a rate consistent with theory.

The white dwarf pair in J0806 might have the smallest orbit of any known binary system with the stars only about 50,000 miles apart, a fifth of the distance from the Earth to the Moon. As the stars swirl closer together, traveling in excess of a million miles per hour, the production of gravitational waves increases.

White dwarfs are remnants of stars like our Sun that have used up all their fuel. Along with neutron stars and black holes, white dwarfs are called compact objects because they pack a lot of mass into a small volume. The white dwarfs in the J0806 system each have an estimated mass half that of the Sun, yet are only about the size of Earth.

"It's either the most compact binary known or one of the most unusual systems we've ever seen," said Strohmayer. "Either way it's got a great story to tell."

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Chandra X-ray observatory.