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ANU researchers discover vampire star sucking life from victim

Stephen Kuper

A team of astronomers, led by researchers from the ANU, has found a “vampire” star in the midst of a feeding frenzy, with the help of an automated program that is sifting through archived data from the decommissioned Kepler space telescope.

ANU researchers discover vampire star sucking life from victim
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The new program acts like a detective to find clues of very fast, mysterious explosions in the universe.

Lead researcher Ryan Ridden-Harper said the program found a dwarf nova, which comprises a white dwarf (the dense remains of a star, something our sun will be in billions of years) gorging on a brown dwarf companion.

The brown dwarf, which is 10 times less massive, is a failed star resembling a planet.

Ridden-Harper, who conducted the study as part of his PhD at The Australian National University (ANU), said, “The rare event we found was a super outburst from the dwarf nova, which can be thought of as a vampire star system.

“The incredible data from Kepler reveals a 30-day period during which the dwarf nova rapidly became 1,600 times brighter before dimming quickly and gradually returning to its normal brightness,” Ridden-Harper added. 

The program aims to find rare astronomical events that evolve rapidly, over hours or days – such as gamma ray bursts from core-collapse supernovae, colliding neutron stars or potentially those not seen before through optical telescopes.

“The discovery of this dwarf nova was unexpected, since it wasn’t what we were searching for, but it provided excellent data and new insights into these vampire star systems,” said Ridden-Harper, who made the discovery in collaboration with colleagues at ANU and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and the University of Notre Dame in the United States. He recently joined STScI as a postdoctoral fellow,” Ridden-Harper explained. 

Dr Brad Tucker, who supervised Ridden-Harper’s work, said the program has extended the use of the Kepler space telescope’s data to support innovative science.

“We’ve used it to see stars as they explode, the secret lives of black holes and now things previously missed – this vampire star that had been lurking in the darkness of space,” said Dr Tucker from the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

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