Nearby Pinwheel Star System Will Die in a Massive Gamma-Ray Blast

Wednesday, 21 November 2018 - 11:17AM
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Wednesday, 21 November 2018 - 11:17AM
Nearby Pinwheel Star System Will Die in a Massive Gamma-Ray Blast
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Nathan Smith (University of California, Berkeley), and NASA
If you have to go out, go out with a bang! In a new study published in the journal Nature, astronomers share the discovery of a "pinwheel" star system in the Milky Way galaxy, just 8,000 light years away from Earth. The images captured by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) are stunning, but don't get too attached. According to the researchers, the system is spinning so fast that it will eventually die in a huge and powerful gamma-ray blast.

There have been gamma-ray blasts in other galaxies, but scientists have never observed one this close to home. CBC reports that the star system, named Apep, was first seen in X-rays and radio observations over 20 years ago, but this is the first time that scientists have devoted a significant amount of time studying it. After using VLT to get a better look, astronomer Joe Callingham was shocked at what he saw. "This is kind of a once-in-a-career image," he said in a statement. "that's just nature right there...and it kind of captures something special, almost poetic or artistic, rather than just scientific." Callingham and his colleagues believe that there are two Wolf-Rayet stars at the center of the pinwheel, with colliding winds that are moving at around 7.5 million miles an hour. The pinwheel shape visible in the VLT images is a result of the dust being flung into the winds by the massive stars, one of which is on the verge of going supernova.

"There's no doubt it will explode," said Callingham. He calculates that the supernova explosion will happen around 100,000 years from now, which is a long time for us mere mortals, but not for a star. Under the conditions of today, Callingham says that the Wolf-Rayet would go in a gamma-ray blast, but things could change. Either way, it appears that Earth is not in the blast radius, which is good news because gamma-ray bursts have the potential to cause an extinction level event. 

Studying the pinwheel star system has left the researchers with more questions, as it is just not behaving the way it is expected to. "We say that the best model is that it's a long gamma-ray burst progenitor, but actually it's a really unique system that we don't understand, and that's our best model," said study co-author Benjamin Pope. "We need more data. Whatever it is is a highly unusual stellar system."

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