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Astronomers see giant star briefly vanish near the center of the Milky Way

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One thing handed in entrance of a star in a distant half of the Milky Way — however astronomers aren’t certain what.


Amanda Smith/College of Cambridge

In 2012, a giant star some 25,000 light-years away blinked at the Earth, and we stared again, somewhat confused.

Astronomers utilizing the VISTA telescope in Chile watched the star dramatically lower in brightness after which mild up once more over a interval of round 200 days. The workforce has a hunch that a big object, orbiting the giant star, obscured our view of it briefly — however the nature of the occulting object is unsure. They’ve dubbed the occasion VVV-WIT-08.

“It is superb that we simply noticed a darkish, massive and elongated object cross between us and the distant star and we are able to solely speculate what its origin is,” mentioned Sergey Koposov, an astronomer at the College of Edinburgh and co-author of the new examine.

The examine, revealed in the journal Month-to-month Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, suggests a pair of potentialities, however the dip does not look like as a consequence of options inherent to the star itself — it have to be a gravitationally certain companion. 

The occasion was found in the VISTA Variables in the Through Lactea survey (VVV). The WIT acronym that stands for “What is that this?” and is used when astronomers aren’t clear on why these giant stars is likely to be blinking.

An animation of the mysterious object that handed in entrance of VVV-WIT-08?


Leigh Smith, Sergey Koposov

A quantity of WIT objects have been found earlier than, with a handful of explanations: violent quasars, star collisions and novas. The workforce state this one is nearly definitely an occultation occasion — one thing has handed in entrance of the star from our view in the universe — and it have to be faint, with a thickness higher than 23 million miles (or about one-quarter of the distance between the Earth and the solar).

They thought of a quantity of totally different objects, ruling out an opportunity object wandering the cosmos simply passing in entrance of the star. It is also unlikely big discs of particles round white dwarfs and neutron stars precipitated the occultation, although the workforce say {that a} cloud of dusty, messy gasoline and particles round a black gap — a “black gap fallback disc” — could also be responsible.

The workforce have additionally recognized two different candidate occasions, VVV-WIT-10 and VVV-WIT-11, suggesting there could also be extra of these “blinking giants” to find and describe.

“There are definitely extra to be discovered, however the problem now’s in determining what the hidden companions are, and the way they got here to be surrounded by discs, regardless of orbiting so removed from the giant star,” mentioned Leigh Smith, an astronomer at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy and first creator of the examine.

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