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June 22, 2022

Neutron Star May Be Devouring Companion

It might sound like science fiction, but astronomers may have discovered a neutron star consuming a companion star, known as a Black Widow Binary system. There are two dozen Black Widows in our own Milky Way galaxy. But what makes this one unique? Learn more on NSF's "The Discovery Files."

Credit: National Science Foundation

Neutron Star May Be Devouring Companion

This is The Discovery Files, from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

It may sound like science fiction, but astronomers may have discovered a neutron star consuming a companion star.

This type of event is known as a Black Widow Binary, when two stars are bound to one another by gravity and the neutron star, created by the supernova of a giant star, has a super dense, collapsed core feeding on its partner like a spider, a black widow.

Supported in part by NSF, researchers at MIT were studying the luminescence of stars, searching for Black Widow binaries, and found a system with a companion star. They were astonished to discover the two were orbiting each other every 62 minutes. But were even more amazed to find what appears to be a third, distant object orbiting the pair every 10,000 years.

There are two dozen known Black Widows in our own Milky Way galaxy, but the stunning discovery of what may be a third star makes this system unique.

Previously, Black Widows were chiefly detected by the gamma and x-ray radiation they emit from the neutron star pulsar. But in this research, the team was able to study the illumination of the companion star, its visible light, a pioneering optical technique that could reveal much more about neutron stars and Black Widows.

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