Doomed Star in Milky Way Threatens Rare Gamma-Ray Burst

Doomed star in the Milky Way.

Doomed star in the Milky Way threatens rare gamma-ray burst (Image: via Nspirement)

University of Sydney astronomers, working with international colleagues, have found a star system like none seen before in our galaxy. Scientists believe that one of the stars — about 8,000 light-years from Earth — is the first known candidate in the Milky Way to produce a dangerous gamma-ray burst, among the most energetic events in the universe, when it explodes and dies.

The system, comprising a pair of scorchingly luminous stars, was nicknamed Apep by the team after the serpentine Egyptian god of chaos. One star is on the brink of a massive supernova explosion. The findings, published in Nature Astronomy, are controversial as no gamma-ray burst has ever been detected within our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

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Yet in the southern constellation of Norma, nestled just beneath Scorpio’s tail, astronomers have discovered this uniquely beautiful star system. At its heart, wrapped in an elegantly sculpted plume of dust and gas, lies a powerful binary pair. The two hot, luminous stars — known to astronomers as Wolf-Rayets — orbit each other every hundred years or so, according to the research conducted at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy.

Scientists believe that one of the stars — about 8,000 light-years from Earth — is the first known candidate in the Milky Way to produce a dangerous gamma-ray burst.
The luminous, hot star Wolf-Rayet 124 (WR 124) is prominent at the center of the James Webb Space Telescope’s composite image combining near-infrared and mid-infrared wavelengths of light. (Image: Webb ERO Production Team via NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI)

This orbital dance is embossed on a fast wind streaming off the stars. Using spectroscopy, astronomers have measured the velocity of the stellar winds as fast as 12 million kilometers an hour, about 1 percent the speed of light. Dr. Joe Callingham, the lead author of the study, said:

That sculpted plume is what makes the system so important, said Professor Peter Tuthill, research group leader at the University of Sydney, adding:

However, the data on the plume presented a conundrum: The stellar winds were expanding 10 times faster than the dust. Professor Tuthill said:

Dr. Benjamin Pope, a co-author from New York University, said:

Wolf-Rayet stars, like those driving Apep’s plume, are known to be very massive stars at the ends of their lives; they could explode as supernovae at any time.

Image of Supernova SN 2014J as it explodes.
Image of Supernova SN 2014J as it explodes. (Image: R.Margutti et al via NASA / CXC / SAO)

Rare gamma-ray burst about to happen

The researchers think this might be the recipe for a perfect stellar storm to produce a gamma-ray burst, which is the most extreme event in the Universe after the Big Bang itself. Fortunately, Apep appears not to be aimed at Earth, because a strike by a gamma-ray burst from this proximity could strip ozone from the atmosphere, drastically increasing our exposure to UV light from the Sun. Professor Tuthill said:

This study was conducted using the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Coonabarabran and the Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert, Chile, and involved support from colleagues at the University of Edinburgh, the University of Sheffield, and the University of New South Wales.

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Provided by: University of Sydney [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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