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Watching a Giant Star Pass Gas

Remember the last time you ordered 26 tacos from Jack in the Box at four in the morning because you were totally starving but you couldn't finish them all before you hurled? Now there is proof that stars do the same thing. The European Space...
June 28, 2011, 9:16pm

Remember the last time you ordered 26 tacos from Jack in the Box at four in the morning because you were totally starving but you couldn’t finish them all before you hurled? Now there is proof that stars do the same thing.

The European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton orbiting telescope recently caught wind of an unusual burst of matter, when a tiny, weak star in the IGR J18410-0535 system glowed with X-ray emissions 10,000 times brighter than normal. The ESA astronomers think the star was trying to "eat" the enormous ball of matter, which had rolled off a neighboring star.

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The star in question is a neutron star, the shriveled post-collapse survivor of a formerly larger and brighter star that’s now only about six miles in diameter. Neutron stars are extremely dense and as such have powerful gravitational fields. In this particular case, the little guy has a blue supergiant as a companion.

The duration of the flare allowed researchers to estimate the size of the clump. The matter cloud was an estimated 10 million miles across, or about 100 billion times the volume of the Moon. But its mass was only one-thousandth of our Moon’s mass. With its intense gravitational pull, the miniscule neutron star couldn’t help but try to “devour” the matter, exposing it to the telescope.

"This was a huge bullet of gas that the star shot out, and it hit the neutron star allowing us to see it," Enrico Bozzo, team leader for the research, said in an ESA press release. "I don't know if there is any way to measure luck, but we were extremely lucky" to see it, he said.

Because the flare happened right when the telescope was making a routine scan of the system, the data gleaned was unusually complete. All stars are continually releasing matter into the universe – what’s known as stellar wind (see below) – but such large blasts are less common. Having seen the event from beginning to end, the ESA astronomers now have a good model for matter emission from a supergiant star, and it’s all thanks to the conspicuous gluttony of its neighbor.