Somewhere in the depths of our universe, a stellar ballet is underway.
Against the dark curtain of space, three vast, glittering stars are locked in a dance by their own gravitational forces and ablaze with their shared glow. Two of these blazing balls of gas rotate closely around each other, completing their mutual orbit at the rhythm of an Earth day. At the same time, the show’s third star is steadily circling the pair, casting a spotlight on this scintillating performance.
Details of the cosmic situation can be found in a paper published in June in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“As far as we know, it is the first of its kind ever discovered,” Alejandro Vigna-Gomez, an astrophysicist at the University of Copenhagen and co-author of the study, said in a statement on Monday.
Although we know of many Tertiary star systems, according to Vigna-Gomez, they are not only much further apart than this glittering trio, they are also typically less massive. For something.
According to the new publication, the close-up inner binaries have a combined mass about 12 times that of our Sun, and the wide-field sphere that surrounds them has a whopping 16 times that of our Sun. For comparison, it would take more than 330,000 Earths to reach one solar mass, an amount that is 99.8% of the mass of our Sun entire solar system. Simply put, these standout ballet flats are absolutely colossal.
But overall, Vigna-Gomez wanted much more than just identifying this unusual star arrangement. The goal was to decipher exactly how such a heavy three of a kind – officially called TIC 470710327 – came together in the first place.
A missing ballerina
Together with fellow researcher Bin Liu, a theoretical astrophysicist also affiliated with the University of Copenhagen, Vigna-Gomez first developed several options for the backstory of the newly observed three-star system.
First up was the idea that the larger, outer star formed first. However, this option eventually fell through because, after some investigation, the team realized that such a starry leviathan would likely have expelled material inward that would disrupt the formation of the binary stars. It wouldn’t have been a trio. Gaseous debris would have spilled in all directions.
Second, the team reasoned that the binary star dancers and third star spectator could have formed separately – far apart – and then eventually collapsed through a force of gravity. While this particular scenario hasn’t been completely ruled out, researchers believe it’s still not the best. They focus much more on the last and preferred option. A little less cooperative.
What if two single binary star systems formed close together, researchers wondered, and then perhaps one of those pairs merged into a giant star? If true, this massive combo star would be the outer one we see today, orbiting the smaller – but still huge – star duo.
In other words, it could be that a fourth dancer was part of this cosmic ballet but sadly got eaten by his own partner before the final scene. Well, according to the team’s new research — based on tons of computer models and intriguingly rooted in the discoveries of citizen scientists — this case was the likeliest.
“But one model isn’t enough,” Vigna-Gomez said, arguing that to prove his and Liu’s suspicions with a high degree of certainty, it would require either using telescopes to study the Tertiary system more closely, or statistically the populations of nearby stars analyze.
“We also encourage people in the scientific community to take a close look at the data,” Liu said in a statement. “What we really want to know is whether this type of system is common in our universe.”