hourglass star collision

When is a nova not a ‘nova’? When a white dwarf and a brown dwarf collide

In July 1670, observers on Earth witnessed a “new star,” or nova, in the constellation Cygnus. Where previously there was dark sky, a bright pinprick of light appeared, faded, reappeared, and then disappeared entirely from view. Modern astronomers studying the remains of this cosmic event initially thought it heralded the merging of two main sequence stars — stars on the same evolutionary path as our sun.

New observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) point to a more intriguing explanation. By studying the debris from this explosion, which takes the form of dual rings of dust and gas resembling an hourglass around a compact central object, the researchers concluded that a brown dwarf (a so-called failed star without the mass to sustain nuclear fusion) merged with a white dwarf (the elderly, cooling remains of a sun-like star).

“It now seems what was observed centuries ago was not what we would today describe as a classic ‘nova.’ Instead, it was the merger of two stellar objects, a white dwarf and a brown dwarf," said Sumner Starrfield, an astronomer and Regents' Professor at Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration and co-author on a paper appearing in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. "When these two objects collided, they spilled out a cocktail of molecules and unusual isotopes, which gave us new insights into the nature of this object.” 

According to the researchers, the white dwarf would have been about 10 times more massive than the brown dwarf, though much smaller in size. As the brown dwarf spiraled inward, intense tidal forces exerted by the white dwarf would have ripped it apart.

“This is the first time such an event has been conclusively identified,” Starrfield said.

Since most star systems in the Milky Way are binary, stellar collisions are not that rare, the astronomers note. But the new ALMA observations reveal new details about the 1670 event. By studying the light from two, more-distant stars as it shines through the dusty remains of the merger, the researchers were able to detect the telltale signature of the element lithium, which is easily destroyed in the interior of a main sequence star, but not inside a brown dwarf.

swan constellation
The Cygnus constellation, site of the stellar event: Johannes Hevelius, Figure 1 of ‘An extract of a letter of M. Hevelius,’ written to the publisher from Dantzick, August 17/27 1670, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1670, vol. 5, number 65, pp. 2087-2091; doi:10.1098/rstl.1670.0062 2053-9207.

“The presence of lithium, together with unusual isotopic ratios of the elements carbon, nitrogen and oxygen point to material from a brown dwarf star being dumped on the surface of a white dwarf. The thermonuclear ‘burning’ and an eruption of this material resulted in the hourglass we see today,” said Stewart Eyres, deputy dean of the Faculty of Computing, Engineering and Science at the University of South Wales and lead author on the paper.

Intriguingly, the hourglass is also rich in organic molecules such as formaldehyde and formamide, which is derived from formic acid. These molecules would not survive in an environment undergoing nuclear fusion and must have been produced in the debris from the explosion. This lends further support to the conclusion that a brown dwarf met its demise in a star-on-star collision with a white dwarf.

“Such collisions are probably not rare and this material will eventually become part of new solar systems, implying that they will already contain the building blocks of organic molecules as they are forming,” Starrfield added. 

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

ALMA, an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its member states, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

alma satellite field
High on the Chajnantor plateau in the Chilean Andes, the European Southern Observatory, together with its international partners, is operating the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) — a state-of-the-art telescope to study light from some of the coldest objects in the universe. ALMA comprises 66 high-precision antennas, spread over distances of up to 16 kilometers. This global collaboration is the largest ground-based astronomical project in existence. Photo courtesy ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/W. Garnier (ALMA)

ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its member states; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.