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?