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'Winking' Star May Be Devouring Wrecked Planets

Bringing some of the mysteries of the universe a little closer to home.

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Owlscrying
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Unread post Fri Dec 22, 2017 3:44 pm

A team of U.S. astronomers studying the star RZ Piscium has found evidence suggesting its strange, unpredictable dimming episodes may be caused by vast orbiting clouds of gas and dust, the remains of one or more destroyed planets.

"Our observations show there are massive blobs of dust and gas that occasionally block the star's light and are probably spiraling into it," said Kristina Punzi, a doctoral student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York and lead author of a paper describing the findings. "Although there could be other explanations, we suggest this material may have been produced by the break-up of massive orbiting bodies near the star."

RZ Piscium is located about 550 light-years away in the constellation Pisces. During its erratic dimming episodes, which can last as long as two days, the star becomes as much as 10 times fainter. It produces far more energy at infrared wavelengths than emitted by stars like our Sun, which indicates the star is surrounded by a disk of warm dust. In fact, about 8 percent of its total luminosity is in the infrared, a level matched by only a few of the thousands of nearby stars studied over the past 40 years. This implies enormous quantities of dust.

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Owlscrying
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Unread post Fri Dec 22, 2017 3:45 pm

Image
Credits: ESA

An illustration of the European Space Agency's (ESA) XMM-Newton X-ray observatory in orbit above Earth.

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Owlscrying
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Unread post Fri Dec 22, 2017 3:47 pm



Young stars are often prodigious X-ray sources. Observations using the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton satellite, show that RZ Piscium is, too. Its total X-ray output is roughly 1,000 times greater than our Sun's. Ground-based observations show the star's surface temperature to be about 9,600 degrees Fahrenheit (5,330 degrees Celsius), only slightly cooler than the Sun's. They also show RZ Piscium is enriched in the tell-tale element lithium, which is slowly destroyed by nuclear reactions inside stars and serves as a clock indicating the elapsed time since a star's birth.

Ground-based telescopes also reveal large amounts of dust and hydrogen-rich gas in the system, suggesting that large blobs of this material are orbiting the star and causing the brightness dips.

 

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