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NOAO News & Reports

June 23, 2014

The Coolest Known White Dwarf: A Diamond in the Sky?

This image (left), taken in visible light at the SOAR telescope (right), shows the field of the pulsar/white dwarf pair. There is no evidence for the white dwarf at the position of the pulsar in this deep image, indicating that the white dwarf is much fainter, and therefore cooler, than any such known object. The two large white circles mask bright, overexposed stars. These results are presented in a recently published paper led by Dr. David Kaplan (UW-Milwaukee)

“Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky…” A team of astronomers, using multiple telescopes, has identified the coolest, faintest white dwarf star known. White dwarfs are the extremely dense end states of stars like our sun: after their nuclear fuel is exhausted, they collapse from the size of a star (about 1,000,000 miles across) to the size of the Earth (7,000 miles across). This white dwarf, located in the constellation Aquarius, is so cool that its carbon has crystallized—in other words, it’s like a diamond, with a mass similar to that of our sun.

NOAO Press Release 14-04

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April 16, 2014

A Sharp Eye on Southern Binary Stars

Animation demonstrating the orbit of the close binary pair Ba, Bb in the HIP 83716 Triple System. The orbit has been calculated from five observations (blue circles) taken between 2009, when the close binary was discovered by CTIO Astronomer Dr. Andrei Tokovinin and his associates from the USNO while using speckle imaging at SOAR, and 2014, the date of the most recent observation. Animation Credit: M. Newhouse & NOAO/AURA/NSF

Unlike our sun, with its retinue of orbiting planets, many stars in the sky orbit around a second star. These binary stars, with orbital periods ranging from days to centuries, have long been the primary tool for measuring basic quantities like the star’s mass. While masses of normal stars are now well determined, some binaries present special interest because their stars are unusual (e.g. very young) or because they may contain planets, gas clouds, or other stars.

NOAO Press Release 14-03

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April 2, 2014

Sakurai’s Object: Stellar Evolution in Real Time

An oil painting done by Stephen Mack that represents what the present expanding shell of gas and dust around the star may look like. Mack is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, the Native American tribe on whose land the Kitt Peak National Observatory, which is managed by NOAO, is located.

Stellar lifetimes are measured in billions of years, so changes in their appearance rarely take place on a human timescale. Thus an opportunity to observe a star passing from one stage of life to another on a timescale of months to years is very exciting, as there are only a very few examples known. One such star is Sakurai’s Object (V4334 Sgr). First reported by a Japanese amateur astronomer in 1996 as a “nova-like object,” Sakurai’s Object had been only a few years before the faint central star of a planetary nebula.

Using the Altair adaptive optics (AO) system with the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i to compensate for distortions to starlight caused by the Earth’s atmosphere, two NOAO astronomers, Dr. Kenneth Hinkle & Dr. Richard Joyce, were able to observe the shell of escaping material around the star. Read more in NOAO Press Release 14-02.

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February 19, 2014

Astronomers at the National Observatory Continue to Watch Sn 2014J

Image of SN2014J taken through a filter which permits only red light at the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope.

The astronomical community was very excited by the appearance of a supernova in a relatively nearby galaxy in late January 2014. Observations of this supernova, located in the galaxy M 82, and referred to as SN2014J revealed that it is a type Ia. These occur in a binary star system composed of a dense white dwarf star and a companion star, either another white dwarf or a bloated red giant star. These supernovae are especially interesting because they provide one of the best ways to measure distances to faint galaxies, and therefore calibrate the expansion of the universe. At Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO), two different teams have been observing SN2014J.

NOAO Press Release 14-01

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December 9, 2013

Where do stars end and brown dwarfs begin?

The relation between size and temperature at the point where stars end and brown dwarfs begin (based on a figure from the publication) Image credit: P. Marenfeld & NOAO/AURA/NSF.

Stars come in a tremendous size range, from many tens of times bigger than the Sun to a tiny fraction of its size. But the answer to just how small an astronomical body can be, and still be a star, has never been known. What is known is that objects below this limit are unable to ignite and sustain hydrogen fusion in their cores: these objects are referred to as brown dwarfs.

Using observations from the SOAR 4.1-m telescope and the SMARTS 0.9-m telescope at CTIO in Chile, the RECONS group from Georgia State University has found clear observational evidence for the theoretically predicted break between very low mass stars and brown dwarfs. More in NOAO Press Release 13-11.

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