Universe  ID: 13512

TESS Shows Ancient North Star Has Eclipses

Astronomers using data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) have shown that Alpha Draconis, a well-studied star visible to the naked eye, and its fainter companion star regularly eclipse each other. While astronomers previously knew this was a binary system, the mutual eclipses came as a complete surprise.

The eclipses are brief, lasting only six hours, so ground-based observations can easily miss them.

The system ranks among the brightest-known eclipsing binaries where the two stars are widely separated, or detached, and only interact gravitationally. Such systems are important because astronomers can measure the masses and sizes of both stars with unrivaled accuracy.

Alpha Draconis, also known as Thuban, lies about 270 light-years away in the northern constellation Draco. Despite its “alpha” designation, it shines as Draco’s fourth-brightest star. Thuban’s fame arises from a historical role it played some 4,700 years ago, back when the earliest pyramids were being built in Egypt.

At that time, it appeared as the North Star, the one closest to the northern pole of Earth’s spin axis, the point around which all of the other stars appear to turn in their nightly motion. Today, this role is played by Polaris, a brighter star in the constellation Ursa Minor. The change happened because Earth’s spin axis performs a cyclic 26,000-year wobble, called precession, that slowly alters the sky position of the rotational pole.

Discovering eclipses in a well-known, bright, historically important star highlights how TESS impacts the broader astronomical community. In this case, the high precision, uninterrupted TESS data can be used to help constrain fundamental stellar parameters at a level we’ve never before achieved.


Chris Smith (USRA): Lead Producer
Chris Smith (USRA): Lead Animator
Francis Reddy (University of Maryland College Park): Lead Science Writer
Please give credit for this item to:
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Short URL to share this page:


This item is part of this series:
Astrophysics Animations

SVS >> Astrophysics
SVS >> Universe
SVS >> Space
SVS >> Eclipse
SVS >> Binary Star
SVS >> Star
NASA Science >> Universe