By Trudy E. Bell
It’s a good thing the Sun is single. According to new research, Sun-like stars in close double-star systems “can be okay for a few billion years—but then they go bad,” says Jeremy Drake of the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass.
How bad? According to data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, close binary stars can destroy their planets along with any life. Drake and four colleagues reported the results in the September 10, 2010, issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Our Sun, about 864,000 miles across, rotates on its axis once in 24.5 days. “Three billion years ago, roughly when bacteria evolved on Earth, the Sun rotated in only 5 days,” explains Drake. Its rotation rate has been gradually slowing because the solar wind gets tangled up in the solar magnetic field, and acts as a brake.
But some sun-like stars occur in close pairs only a few million miles apart. That’s only about five times the diameter of each star—so close the stars are gravitationally distorted. They are actually elongated toward each other. They also interact tidally, keeping just one face toward the other, as the Moon does toward Earth.
Such a close binary is “a built-in time bomb,” Drake declares. The continuous loss of mass from the two stars via solar wind carries away some of the double-star system’s angular momentum, causing the two stars to spiral inward toward each other, orbiting faster and faster as the distance shrinks. When each star’s rotation period on its axis is the same as its orbital period around the other, the pair effectively rotates as a single body in just 3 or 4 days.
Then, watch out! Such fast spinning intensifies the magnetic dynamo inside each star. The stars “generate bigger, stronger ‘star spots’ 5 to 10 percent the size of the star—so big they can be detected from Earth,” Drake says. “The stars also interact magnetically very violently, shooting out monster flares.”
Worst of all, the decreasing distance between the two stars “changes the gravitational resonances of the planetary system,” Drake continued, destabilizing the orbits of any planets circling the pair. Planets may so strongly perturbed they are sent into collision paths. As they repeatedly slam into each other, they shatter into red-hot asteroid-sized bodies, killing any life. In as short as a century, the repeated collisions pulverize the planets into a ring of warm dust.
The infrared glow from this pulverized debris is what Spitzer has seen in some self-destructing star systems. Drake and his colleagues now want to examine a much bigger sample of binaries to see just how bad double star systems really are.
They’re already sure of one thing: “We’re glad the Sun is single!”
Read more about these findings at the NASA Spitzer site at www.spitzer.caltech.edu/news/1182-ssc2010-07-Pulverized-Planet-Dust-May-Lie-Around-Double-Stars . For kids, the Spitzer Concentration game shows a big collection of memorable (if you’re good at the game) images from the Spitzer Space Telescope. Visit spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/spitzer/concentration/.
Planetary collisions such as shown in this artist’s rendering could be quite common in binary star systems where the stars are very close.