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Stars Are Now Eating Other Stars, So Good Luck Sleeping

Zombie Stars! AHHHH! 

CK Kimball
September 23 2021

There’s cannibalism in the sky! Zombie stars! Insatiable black holes! 

As described in the September 3rd issue of Science, a burst of radio energy as bright as a supernova (the brightest exploding star) appeared in a dwarf star-forming galaxy approximately 500 million light-years away. This was found during night sky scans by the Very Large Array (VLA) radio astronomy observatory in central New Mexico.  

Thinking, “Whoa, this is interesting” Dillon Dong, an astronomer at Caltech, and their colleagues started piecing together data from observations using the initial finding of the 27 dishes in the desert VLA. They also used follow-up observations with W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii (which “sees” in the same optical light as our eyes) and archival data from the Monitor of All-Sky X-ray Image (MAXI) telescope, a Japanese instrument that sits on the ISS. 

The Keck telescope caught a luminous outflow of material spewing in all directions at around 2 million miles per hour from a central location, suggesting that an energetic explosion had occurred there in the past. Meanwhile, the MAXI data included an extremely bright X-ray source, in the same place as the radio incident, but observed back in 2014.

This is what Dong and their colleagues think happened and the tale is as tragic as it is horrifying:  

Long ago (like millions of years ago), a binary pair of stars (meaning a two-star system) were born orbiting each other in the gentle nothing of space. One star died in a spectacular supernova turning into either a neutron star (the collapsed core of a massive supergiant star) or a black hole (a region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter or radiation can escape). As gravity pulled the two objects closer together, the dead star began to enter the personal space of its alive and bright stellar sibling.

Get your mind out of the gutter. It’s a merging star system: ESO Calcada 

For hundreds of years, this dead object spiraled around inside its living star sibling, like an astronomical “Malignant” sequel, until it eventually made its way down to its sibling’s core. Which. It. ATE.  

During this time, while the dead star sibling planned their mutual disaster, the living star was shedding huge amounts of dust and gas, forming a shell of material around the two. Once the dead star began feeding on the live star’s core, gravitational forces and complex magnetic interactions from this eldritch horror launched enormous jets of energy (the X-ray flash from 2014 picked up by MAXI) causing the larger and living star to EXPLODE.

Theorists have envisioned such a scenario, dubbing it a merger-triggered core-collapse supernova, but this would be the first direct observation of the phenomenon. And while a process called “common envelope evolution”, in which one star becomes immersed inside another, has been studied, usually the engulfing partner dies before its core is consumed, leading to two compact objects, like neutron stars or black holes, politely orbiting one another. Scientists hope this new observation will lead to understanding the timing of “common envelope evolution” and thus gain more understanding of how our own galaxy developed. 

Because they’re too scared to admit the truth. There’s a quantum zombie virus infecting stars, killing them dead, but reanimated to eat the core of another star. What happened to that supernova debris? Will it hit Earth? Is the Milky Way NEXT? Who knows? But this seems prime fodder for James Wan's next horror movie.



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