And since the “discovery” of our Milky Way–or, more accurately, the discovery of what that hazy band of stars in the sky is–we’ve come to realize just how massive our home in the cosmos really is.
That scientific journey started with the Herschels’ mapping of what was then called the “star system.” Later astronomers began to realize just how far out from the sun the stars of our galaxy really reached. Determining distances across our galaxy was the first step to discovering its size.
Later, we began to understand its structure–mapping the extraordinarily thin disk, the chaotic central bulge, and the visible part of the halo, a sphere of stars that extends beyond the plane of the galaxy.
And since then, we’ve begun to master the next critical part of understanding our galaxy: its mass.
Neutron stars—the compact remains of massive stars that have gone supernova—are some of the most extreme objects in the universe, narrowly beaten by black holes (and, as we’ll talk about in future posts, active galaxies and such).
Dense balls of pure neutron material with diameters barely larger than Los Angeles, neutron stars have strong magnetic fields that produce beams of radiation at the magnetic poles. Their speedy rotation makes these beams sweep across the sky like a lighthouse.
When one of their beams crosses directly over Earth, human astronomers observe rapid pulses of light called pulsars.
These objects are whacky, to say the least. And there’s more…
Way back when we spent a number of posts surveying the stars, we covered binary systems. These are star systems that contain multiple stars. Imagine if our sun had a companion, and two stars rose and set in our sky over the cycle of day and night.
It might surprise you that the majority of stars in the universe are actually in binary systems. Our solar system seems to be an outlier in that regard. Most stars have a companion or two or six…
…and so do some neutron stars.
Remember that neutron stars are the collapsed remnants of massive stars that have gone supernova. If most stars are part of binary systems, then naturally, some of these stars will evolve into neutron stars and still be part of their birth system.
In the constellation of Perseus, there is a star named Algol that exists in a binary system. The binary consists of two stars: a massive main-sequence star and a less massive giant.
According to what we’ve explored so far…that doesn’t make any sense.
More massive stars evolve faster than less massive ones. They expand into giants before less massive stars do. In any one binary system out there, we should observe a more massive giant and a less massive main-sequence star, not the other way around.
But the Algol system is not alone in this peculiarity. Over half the stars in the universe are binaries, and in a number of those, the more massive star is still on the main sequence.
Much earlier on—probably months ago now—I explained how something called the proton-proton chain generates massive amounts of energy within stars, and enables them to fuel whole solar systems. That’s the battery of a star.
We’ll address the proton-proton chain later, when we start talking about star life cycles. We’ve still got some talk about nebulas and interstellar space to go before we get that far. For now, what’s important is that the proton-proton chain depends on high density.
That is, stars will have the strongest batteries if they have very dense interiors. It doesn’t really matter how dense their middles and atmospheres are. But conditions in their cores must be very dense.
You’ll find, if you study stars closely, that there is a definite relation between their densities, masses, and luminosities.
At the center of this frisbee lies the sun—our sun, for simplicity’s sake. And sprinkled around the surface of its disk are all nine…excuse me, eight…planets of the solar system, plus the dwarf planets, asteroids, moons, Kuiper belt objects, Oort Cloud objects, comets, cosmic dust…
Okay, I could go on, but I’ll stop there. You get the picture. The whole solar system is on this frisbee. It’s a flat plane, disk-like. There aren’t orbits that put the planets up in the air above or below the frisbee. They all lie, more or less, in the same basic plane.
Wait a second though…isn’t this post supposed to be about eclipsing binary stars? What the heck does our frisbee-like solar system have to do with that?
Consider a solar system far different from our own. A solar system governed by two suns, and consisting of planets we can only dream of.
Would it surprise you to hear that, based on recent discoveries, that might actually be the norm?
The surroundings we grow up in determine our outlook on the world, and this is never more true than with our solar system. Our eight planets (though some would vehemently insist upon nine) and their parent star are all we know.
But what if I told you that most of the stars you see when you look up at the night sky have companions? And often, these companions are impossible to detect by visual means.
Here’s a visual binary that just about stretches the limits of the definition. It’s a star, though you’ll never see it like this with the naked eye. Specifically, this is Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.
But if you look closely on the top left, you’ll see a tiny dot just peeking out from behind Sirius’s brilliance. That’s Sirius B, this bright star’s faint companion. Together, they’re known as Sirius A and Sirius B.
It’s tradition for astronomers to name all the stars in a system the same thing, but it also makes sense. Most of them aren’t obvious. You might look at some ordinary-looking star in the sky, say…Antares. But as it turns out, Antares has a barely-visible companion.
The visibility of visual binaries has a wide range. Consider the famous double star in the Big Dipper, Mizar.
We know how big stars are; they range from the size of the Earth to over a thousand times the size of the sun (which is in itself over one hundred times the size of the Earth). We know they’re huge.
But how massive are they?
Yes, that’s a different thing.
A pingpong ball and a golf ball are close to the same size, but a golf ball is much more massive—in that it has more stuff in it. A pingpong ball is hollow and easily tossed; a golf ball has more matter in it and will hit the ground with a harder thunk.
Stars are similar. They have a wide range of sizes, but nothing I’ve described thus far has told us about their masses. That is, how much stuff is in them? Are they like puffy gaseous balls, or are they more dense, like planets?
The best way to learn about stars’ masses is by studying binary stars. But what exactly are binary stars?