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Two stars’ close encounter may explain an enduring cosmic flare

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A newborn star whizzing past another stellar youngster triggered a cosmic flare-up that began nearly a century ago and is still going strong today, researchers say.

In late 1936, a dim star in the constellation Orion started to erupt in our sky and soon shone over 100 times as brightly as it had before. Only telescopes could detect the star prior to the outburst, but afterward, the star was so bright it was visible through binoculars. The star even lit up part of the previously dark interstellar cloud called Barnard 35 that presumably gave the star birth (SN: 1/10/76).

Amazingly, the star, now named FU Orionis, is still shining almost as brightly today, 85 years later. That means the star wasn’t a nova, a stellar explosion that quickly fades from view (SN: 2/12/21). But the exact cause of the long-lasting flare-up has been a mystery.

Now, computer simulations may offer a clue to what’s kept the celestial beacon shining so brightly. Located about 1,330 light-years from Earth, FU Orionis is actually a double star, consisting of two separate stars that probably orbit each other. One is about as massive as the sun, while the other is only 30 percent to 60 percent as massive. Because the stars are so young, each has a disk of gas and dust revolving around it. It’s the lesser star’s passage through the other star’s disk that triggered and sustains the great flare-up, the simulations suggest.

“The low-mass star is the one that is in outburst,” says Elisabeth Borchert, an astrophysicist at Monash University in Clayton, Australia.

According to Borchert’s team, the outburst arose as the low-mass star passed 10 to 20 times as far from its mate as the Earth is from the sun — comparable to the distance between the sun and Saturn or Uranus. As the lesser star plowed through the other star’s disk, gas and dust from that disk rained down onto the intruder. In the simulations, this material got hot and glowed profusely, making the low-mass star hundreds of times brighter, behavior that mimicked FU Orionis’ outburst.

The flare-up has endured so long because the gravitational pull of the lesser star captured material that began to orbit the star and is still falling onto it, the researchers explain in a paper submitted online November 24 at arXiv.org. The study will be published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“It is a plausible explanation,” says Scott Kenyon, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who was not involved with the study. The researchers “get a rise in luminosity about what the observations show,” he says, and “it lasts a long time.”

Kenyon says one way to test the team’s theory is to track how the two stars move relative to each other in the future. That may reveal whether the stars were as close together in 1936 as the simulations suggest. Astronomers discovered the binary nature of FU Orionis only two decades ago, by which time the stars were much farther apart in their elliptical orbit around each other.

Since the discovery of FU Orionis, several other newborn stars have flared up in a similar fashion. The binary model “could be a good explanation for all of them,” Borchert says, if those stars also have stellar companions that recently skirted past.

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