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  • NASA's Kepler, Swift Missions Harvest ‘Pumpkin’ Stars
    2016.10.27
    Astronomers using observations from NASA's Kepler and Swift missions have discovered a group of rapidly spinning stars that produce X-rays at more than 100 times the peak levels ever seen from the sun. The stars, which spin so fast they've been squashed into pumpkin-like shapes, are thought to be the result of close binary systems where two sun-like stars merge. The 18 stars rotate in just a few days, on average, compared to the sun's nearly one month rotation. Their rapid rotation greatly amplifies the same kind of activity we see on the sun, such as sunspots and solar flares, resulting in enhanced X-ray output. The most extreme member of the group, a K-type orange giant dubbed KSw 71, is more than 10 times larger than the sun, rotates in just 5.5 days, and produces X-ray emission 4,000 times greater than the sun does at solar maximum. These rare stars were found as part of an X-ray survey of the original Kepler field of view. From 2009 to 2013, Kepler measured the brightness of more than 150,000 stars in a single patch of the sky to detect the regular dimming from planets passing in front of their host stars. The mission was immensely successful and continues on as the K2 mission, studying other parts of the sky. Because the original field has been studied so well by Kepler and other missions, it is now one of the best-known parts of the sky. Astronomers decided to observe portions of the field using the X-ray and ultraviolet/optical telescopes on Swift to find X-ray sources that Kepler may have observed in visible light. The Kepler-Swift Active Galaxies and Stars Survey (KSwAGS) found 93 sources, half of which are active galaxies, where a central black hole drives the emissions. The other half are various types of X-ray stars, including the 18 "pumpkin" stars. Forty years ago, Ronald Webbink at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign noted that close binary systems cannot survive once the fuel supply of one star dwindles and it starts to enlarge. The stars coalesce to form a single rapidly spinning star initially residing in a so-called "excretion" disk formed by gas thrown out during the merger. The disk dissipates over the next 100 million years, leaving behind a very active, rapidly spinning star. The KSwAGS pumpkin stars are thought to have shed their disks recently, which means Kepler and Swift have caught them at the end of a very brief evolutionary phase.
  • NASA Missions Take an Unparalleled Look into Superstar Eta Carinae
    2015.01.07
    Eta Carinae is a binary system containing the most luminous and massive star within 10,000 light-years. A long-term study led by astronomers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, combined data from NASA satellites, ground-based observing campaigns and theoretical modeling to produce the most comprehensive picture of Eta Carinae to date. New findings include Hubble Space Telescope images that show decade-old shells of ionized gas racing away from the largest star at a million miles an hour, and new 3-D models that reveal never-before-seen features of the stars' interactions. Located about 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation of Carina, Eta Carinae comprises two massive stars whose eccentric orbits bring them unusually close every 5.5 years. Both produce powerful gaseous outflows called stellar winds, which enshroud the stars and stymy efforts to directly measure their properties. Astronomers have established that the brighter, cooler primary star has about 90 times the mass of the sun and outshines it by 5 million times. While the properties of its smaller, hotter companion are more contested, Goddard's Ted Gull and his colleagues think the star has about 30 solar masses and emits a million times the sun's light. At closest approach, or periastron, the stars are 140 million miles (225 million kilometers) apart, or about the average distance between Mars and the sun. Astronomers observe dramatic changes in the system during the months before and after periastron. These include X-ray flares, followed by a sudden decline and eventual recovery of X-ray emission; the disappearance and re-emergence of structures near the stars detected at specific wavelengths of visible light; and even a play of light and shadow as the smaller star swings around the primary. During the past 11 years, spanning three periastron passages, the Goddard group has developed a model based on routine observations of the stars using ground-based telescopes and multiple NASA satellites. According to this model, the interaction of the two stellar winds accounts for many of the periodic changes observed in the system. The winds from each star have markedly different properties: thick and slow for the primary, lean and fast for the hotter companion. The primary's wind blows at nearly 1 million mph and is especially dense, carrying away the equivalent mass of our sun every thousand years. By contrast, the companion's wind carries off about 100 times less material than the primary's, but it races outward as much as six times faster. The images and videos on this page include periastron observations from NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, the X-Ray Telescope aboard NASA's Swift, the Hubble Space Telescope's STIS instrument, and computer simulations. See the captions for details.
  • Swift Probes Exotic Object: 'Kicked' Black Hole or Mega Star?
    2014.11.19
    An international team of researchers analyzing decades of observations from many facilities, including NASA's Swift satellite, has discovered an unusual source in a galaxy some 90 million light-years away. The object's curious properties make it a good match for a supermassive black hole ejected from its home galaxy after merging with another giant black hole. An alternative explanation for the source, called SDSS1133, is just as intriguing. It may be the remains of a massive star called a luminous blue variable (LBV) that exploded as a supernova. These stars undergo episodic eruptions that cast large amounts of mass into space long before their final blast. Interpreted in this way, SDSS1133 would represent the longest period of LBV eruptions ever observed, followed by a terminal supernova explosion in 2001. Whatever SDSS1133 is, it's persistent. The team was able to detect it in astronomical surveys dating back more than 60 years. The mystery object is part of the dwarf galaxy Markarian 177, located in the bowl of the Big Dipper, a well-known star pattern within the constellation Ursa Major. Although supermassive black holes usually occupy galactic centers, SDSS1133 is located at least 2,600 light-years from its host galaxy's core. In June 2013, the researchers obtained high-resolution near-infrared images of the object using the 10-meter Keck II telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. They reveal the emitting region of SDSS1133 is less than 40 light-years across and that the center of Markarian 177 shows evidence of intense star formation and other features indicating a recent disturbance.
  • Swift Catches Mega Flares from a Mini Star
    2014.09.30
    On April 23, NASA's Swift satellite detected the strongest, hottest, and longest-lasting sequence of stellar flares ever seen from a nearby red dwarf star. The initial blast from this record-setting series of explosions was as much as 10,000 times more powerful than the largest solar flare ever recorded. At its peak, the flare reached temperatures of 360 million degrees Fahrenheit (200 million Celsius), more than 12 times hotter than the center of the sun. The "superflare" came from one of the stars in a close binary system known as DG Canum Venaticorum, or DG CVn for short, located about 60 light-years away. Both stars are dim red dwarfs with masses and sizes about one-third of our sun's. They orbit each other at about three times Earth's average distance from the sun, which is too close for Swift to determine which star erupted. At 5:07 p.m. EDT on April 23, the rising tide of X-rays from DG CVn's superflare triggered Swift's Burst Alert Telescope (BAT). Swift turned to observe the source in greater detail with other instruments and, at the same time, notified astronomers around the globe that a powerful outburst was in progress. For about three minutes after the BAT trigger, the superflare's X-ray brightness was greater than the combined luminosity of both stars at all wavelengths under normal conditions. The largest solar explosions are classified as extraordinary, or X class, solar flares based on their X-ray emission. The biggest flare ever seen from the sun occurred in November 2003 and is rated as X 45. But if the flare on DG CVn were viewed from a planet the same distance as Earth is from the sun and measured the same way, it would have been ranked 10,000 times greater, at about X 100,000. How can a star just a third the size of the sun produce such a giant eruption? The key factor is its rapid spin, a crucial ingredient for amplifying magnetic fields. The flaring star in DG CVn rotates in under a day, about 30 or more times faster than our sun. The sun also rotated much faster in its youth and may well have produced superflares of its own, but, fortunately for us, it no longer appears capable of doing so.
  • A Trio of Swift Bursts Form A New Class of GRBs
    2013.04.16
    Three unusually long-lasting stellar explosions discovered by NASA's Swift satellite represent a previously unrecognized class of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). Two international teams of astronomers studying these events conclude that they likely arose from the catastrophic death of supergiant stars hundreds of times larger than the sun.

    GRBs are the most luminous and mysterious explosions in the universe. The blasts emit surges of gamma rays — the most powerful form of light — as well as X-rays, and they produce afterglows that can be observed at optical and radio energies. Swift, Fermi and other spacecraft detect an average of about one GRB each day.

    Traditionally, astronomers have recognized two GRB types, short and long, based on the duration of the gamma-ray signal. Short bursts last two seconds or less and are thought to represent a merger of compact objects in a binary system, with the most likely suspects being neutron stars and black holes. Long GRBs may last anywhere from several seconds to several minutes, with typical durations falling between 20 and 50 seconds. These events are thought to be associated with the collapse of a star several times the sun's mass and the resulting birth of a new black hole.

    Both scenarios give rise to powerful jets that propel matter at nearly the speed of light in opposite directions. As they interact with matter in and around the star, the jets produce a spike of high-energy light.

    A detailed study of GRB 111209A, which erupted on Dec. 9, 2011, and continued to produce high-energy emission for an astonishing seven hours, making it by far the longest-duration GRB ever recorded.

    Another event, GRB 101225A, exploded on Christmas Day in 2010 and produced high-energy emission for at least two hours. Subsequently nicknamed the "Christmas burst," the event's distance was unknown, which led two teams to arrive at radically different physical interpretations. One group concluded the blast was caused by an asteroid or comet falling onto a neutron star within our own galaxy. Another team determined that the burst was the outcome of a merger event in an exotic binary system located some 3.5 billion light-years away.

    Using the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii, a team led by Andrew Levan at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, obtained a spectrum of the faint galaxy that hosted the Christmas burst. This enabled the scientists to identify emission lines of oxygen and hydrogen and determine how much these lines were displaced to lower energies compared to their appearance in a laboratory. This difference, known to astronomers as a redshift, places the burst some 7 billion light-years away.

    Levan and his colleagues also examined 111209A and the more recent burst 121027A, which exploded on Oct. 27, 2012. All show similar X-ray, ultraviolet and optical emission and all arose from the central regions of compact galaxies that were actively forming stars. The astronomers conclude that all three GRBs constitute a hitherto unrecognized group of "ultra-long" bursts.

    To account for the normal class of long GRBs, astronomers envision a star similar to the size sun's size but with many times its mass. The mass must be high enough for the star to undergo an energy crisis, with its core ultimately running out of fuel and collapsing under its own weight to form a black hole. Some of the matter falling onto the nascent black hole becomes redirected into powerful jets that drill through the star, creating the gamma-ray spike, but because this burst is short-lived, the star must be comparatively small.

    Because ultra-long GRBs persist for periods up to 100 times greater than long GRBs, they require a stellar source of correspondingly greater physical size. Both groups suggest that the likely candidate is a supergiant, a star with about 20 times the sun's mass that still retains its deep hydrogen atmosphere, making it hundreds of times the sun's diameter.

  • NASA's Swift Images SN 2014J in M82
    2014.01.24
    An exceptionally close stellar explosion discovered on Jan. 21 has become the focus of observatories around and above the globe, including several NASA spacecraft. The blast, designated SN 2014J, occurred in the galaxy M82 and lies only about 12 million light-years away. This makes it the nearest optical supernova in two decades and potentially the closest type Ia supernova to occur during the life of currently operating space missions.

    As befits its moniker, Swift was the first to take a look. On Jan. 22, just a day after the explosion was discovered, Swift's Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT) captured the supernova and its host galaxy.

    A type Ia supernova represents the total destruction of a white dwarf star by one of two possible scenarios. In one, the white dwarf orbits a normal star, pulls a stream of matter from it, and gains mass until it reaches a critical threshold and explodes. In the other, the blast arises when two white dwarfs in a binary system eventually spiral inward and collide.

    Either way, the explosion produces a superheated shell of plasma that expands outward into space at tens of millions of miles an hour. Short-lived radioactive elements formed during the blast keep the shell hot as it expands. The interplay between the shell's size, transparency and radioactive heating determines when the supernova reaches peak brightness. Astronomers expect SN 2014J to continue brightening into the first week of February, by which time it may be visible in binoculars.

    M82, also known as the Cigar Galaxy, is located in the constellation Ursa Major and is a popular target for small telescopes. M82 is undergoing a powerful episode of star formation that makes it many times brighter than our own Milky Way galaxy and accounts for its unusual and photogenic appearance.

  • X-ray Satellites Monitor the Clashing Winds of a Colossal Binary
    2012.10.12
    One of the nearest and richest OB associations in our galaxy is Cygnus OB2, which is located about 4,700 light-years away and hosts some 3,000 hot stars, including about 100 in the O class. Weighing in at more than a dozen times the sun's mass and sporting surface temperatures five to ten times hotter, these ginormous blue-white stars blast their surroundings with intense ultraviolet light and powerful outflows called stellar winds.

    Two of these stars can be found in the intriguing binary system known as Cygnus OB2 #9. In 2011, NASA's Swift satellite, the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton observatory and several ground-based facilities took part in a campaign to monitor the system as the giant stars raced toward their closest approach. The observations are giving astronomers a more detailed picture of the stars, their orbits and the interaction of their stellar winds.

    An O-type star is so luminous that the pressure of its starlight actually drives material from its surface, creating particle outflows with speeds of several million miles an hour. Put two of these humongous stars in the same system and their winds can collide during all or part of the orbit, creating both radio emission and X-rays.

    In 2008, research showed that Cygnus OB2 #9 emitted radio signals that varied every 2.355 years. In parallel, Yael Naz

  • Hubble, Swift Detect First-ever Changes in an Exoplanet Atmosphere
    2012.06.28
    An international team of astronomers using data from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has detected significant changes in the atmosphere of a planet located beyond our solar system. The scientists conclude the atmospheric variations occurred in response to a powerful eruption on the planet's host star, an event observed by NASA's Swift satellite.

    The exoplanet is HD 189733b, a gas giant similar to Jupiter, but about 14 percent larger and more massive. The planet circles its star at a distance of only 3 million miles, or about 30 times closer than Earth's distance from the sun, and completes an orbit every 2.2 days. Its star, named HD 189733A, is about 80 percent the size and mass of our sun.

    Astronomers classify the planet as a "hot Jupiter." Previous Hubble observations show that the planet's deep atmosphere reaches a temperature of about 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit (1,030 C).

    HD 189733b periodically passes across, or transits, its parent star, and these events give astronomers an opportunity to probe its atmosphere and environment. In a previous study, a group led by Lecavelier des Etangs used Hubble to show that hydrogen gas was escaping from the planet's upper atmosphere. The finding made HD 189733b only the second-known "evaporating" exoplanet at the time.

    The system is just 63 light-years away, so close that its star can be seen with binoculars near the famous Dumbbell Nebula. This makes HD 189733b an ideal target for studying the processes that drive atmospheric escape.

    When HD 189733b transits its star, some of the star's light passes through the planet's atmosphere. This interaction imprints information on the composition and motion of the planet's atmosphere into the star's light.

    In April 2010, the researchers observed a single transit using Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), but they detected no trace of the planet's atmosphere. Follow-up STIS observations in September 2011 showed a surprising reversal, with striking evidence that a plume of gas was streaming away from the exoplanet.

    The researchers determined that at least 1,000 tons of gas was leaving the planet's atmosphere every second. The hydrogen atoms were racing away at speeds greater than 300,000 mph.

    Because X-rays and extreme ultraviolet starlight heat the planet's atmosphere and likely drive its escape, the team also monitored the star with Swift's X-ray Telescope (XRT). On Sept. 7, 2011, just eight hours before Hubble was scheduled to observe the transit, Swift was monitoring the star when it unleashed a powerful flare. It brightened by 3.6 times in X-rays, a spike occurring atop emission levels that already were greater than the sun's. Astronomers estimate that HD 189733b encountered about 3 million times as many X-rays as Earth receives from a solar flare at the threshold of the X class.

  • HD 189733b Exoplanet Animation
    2012.06.28
    The exoplanet HD 189733b lies so near its star that it completes an orbit every 2.2 days. In late 2011, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope found that the planet's upper atmosphere was streaming away at speeds exceeding 300,000 mph. Just before the Hubble observation, NASA's Swift detected the star blasting out a strong X-ray flare, one powerful enough to blow away part of the planet's atmosphere.
  • The Dual Personality of the 'Christmas Burst'
    2011.11.30
    The Christmas burst, also known as GRB 101225A, was discovered in the constellation Andromeda by Swift's Burst Alert Telescope at 1:38 p.m. EST on Dec. 25, 2010. Two very different scenarios successfully reproduce features of this peculiar cosmic explosion. It was either caused by novel type of supernova located billions of light-years away or an unusual collision much closer to home, within our own galaxy.

    Common to both scenarios is the presence of a neutron star, the crushed core that forms when a star many times the sun's mass explodes.

    According to one science team, the burst occurred in an exotic binary system where a neutron star orbited a normal star that had just entered its red giant phase. The outer atmosphere of the giant expanded so much that it engulfed the neutron star, which resulted in both the ejection of the giant's atmosphere and rapid tightening of the neutron star's orbit.

    Once the two stars became wrapped in a common envelope of gas, the neutron star may have merged with the giant's core after just five orbits, or about 18 months. The end result of the merger was the birth of a black hole and the production of oppositely directed jets of particles moving at nearly the speed of light, which made the gamma rays, followed by a weak supernova. Based on this interpretation, the event took place about 5.5 billion light-years away, and the team has detected what may be a faint galaxy at the right location.

    Another team supports an alternative model that involves the tidal disruption of a large comet-like object and the ensuing crash of debris onto a neutron star located only about 10,000 light-years away.

    Gamma-ray emission occurred when debris fell onto the neutron star. Clumps of cometary material likely made a few orbits, with different clumps following different paths before settling into a disk around the neutron star. X-ray variations detected by Swift's X-Ray Telescope that lasted several hours may have resulted from late-arriving clumps that struck the neutron star as the disk formed.

    The NASA release is here.

  • Central Engine Supernova
    2010.01.27
    In March 2009, NASA's Swift observed the supernova SN 2009bb in the spiral galaxy NGC 3278. The explosion is apparent in visible light, but not at ultraviolet and X-ray energies, and satellites recorded no gamma-ray burst. Nevertheless, particle jets reaching 85 percent the speed of light accompanied the explosion. Astronomers believe these jets are powered by a "central engine" — likely a newborn black hole at the star's center, a scenario that also fits most gamma-ray bursts.
  • Gamma-Rays from High-Mass X-Ray Binaries
    2009.10.28
    In its first year, NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope discovered GeV (billions of electron volts) intensity variations revealing orbital motion in high-mass X-ray binaries (HMXBs). These are systems where a compact companion, such as a neutron star or a black hole, rapidly orbits a hot, young, massive star. The first examples include LSI +61 303, which sports a 26-day orbital period, and LS 5039 (3.9 days). This animation shows such a system. When the compact object lies far from its host star, TeV (trillions of electron volts) gamma-rays (white) are seen by ground-based gamma-ray observatories. But, as the object plunges closer to the star, the TeV emission is quenched and GeV emission turns on. Interactions by accelerated particles from the compact source with gas encircling the star — or in some systems, the star's light itself — is thought to be responsible for this change.