Amateur astronomers spot ultra-rare cataclysmic star collapse

17 Jul 2015

An illustration of a binary star system similar to Gaia14aae. Image via Wikimedia Commons

A team of researchers, helped by amateur astronomers, managed to capture on a European Space Agency (ESA) telescope an incredibly rare star that increased in brightness five times in one day.

The find is something of a coup for the international team that captured the celestial phenomenon known as a cataclysmic variable, which consists of a two-star system with one giant white dwarf star cannibalising gas from its companion star.

Led by a group of researchers from the University of Cambridge, the team were helped significantly by a group called the Center for Backyard Astrophysics (CBA), which spotted the incredible sight using the ESA’s Gaia telescope.

Dubbed Gaia14aae and based 730 light years away in the Draco constellation, this sighting has been described by the team as being a one-in-a-billion find due to the fact that it is so well-aligned, offering the chance to gather detailed data.

125-times larger than our own sun

This sudden outburst of energy, which saw it increase in brightness by a factor of five in just one day, was due to the white dwarf devouring its companion, which is so dense that a spoonful of its material would weigh the same as an elephant.

Incredibly, the companion star that is having the life sucked out of it has a volume 125-times that of our own sun, while the more powerful white dwarf is about the size of our own planet Earth.

Based on the readings obtained, its rarity is only increased due to the fact it is believed to be mostly comprised of helium, rather than hydrogen, the most common element in the universe.

“It’s really cool that the first time that one of these systems was discovered to have one star completely eclipsing the other, that it was amateur astronomers who made the discovery and alerted us,” said Dr Heather Campbell of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy. “This really highlights the vital contribution that amateur astronomers make to cutting edge scientific research.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic