The universe has no shortage of oddities, and researchers at the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab have observed another one in the form of a particular binary star system. The system, called CPD-29 2176, will eventually trigger a kilonova, a celestial event in which two neutron stars collide in a massive explosion that forms heavy elements, including gold and platinum.
CPD-29 2176 is located around 11,400 light-years from Earth and was found by researchers using NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory. Astronomers then conducted more observations at NOIRLab’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. CPD-29 2176 is home to one neutron star and one massive star that is in the process of going supernova, only to become a second neutron star in the future. Eventually, the two neutron stars will collide, producing a kilonova, an explosion that is thought to produce bursts of gamma rays and large amounts of gold and platinum. The paper documenting the research team’s find is published today in Nature.
“We know that the Milky Way contains at least 100 billion stars and likely hundreds of billions more. This remarkable binary system is essentially a one-in-ten-billion system,” said André-Nicolas Chené in a NOIRLab press release. Chené is a NOIRLab astronomer and an author on the study. “Prior to our study, the estimate was that only one or two such systems should exist in a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way.”
While many stars implode was a powerful supernova when they die, the dying star in CPD-29 2176 is becoming an ultra-stripped supernova. An ultra-stripped supernova lacks the vast amount of force that a typical supernova has, since the dying star has had much of its mass stripped by its companion. The researchers think that the neutron star in the system was also formed with an ultra-stripped supernova and argue that this is the reason that CPD-29 2176 is able to remain as a binary—a typical supernova would have enough power to kick a companion star out of its orbit.
“The current neutron star would have to form without ejecting its companion from the system. An ultra-stripped supernova is the best explanation for why these companion stars are in such a tight orbit,” said lead author Noel D. Richardson, a physics and astronomy professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in the NOIRLab release. “To one day create a kilonova, the other star would also need to explode as an ultra-stripped supernova so the two neutron stars could eventually collide and merge.”
It will take around one million years for the star undergoing ultra-stripped supernova to turn into a neutron star. It is then when the two stars will begin to spiral into each other, eventually resulting in the metal-producing kilonova, according to the research. In these dramatic cosmic endings, we can look forward to the creation of the same elements that make life possible.
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