A binary star’s demise can be a breathtakingly violent event.
This image depicts the binary system R Aquarii, which consists of a red giant shedding its outer envelope, which is being devoured by its companion, a much smaller, denser white dwarf.
The dramatic event you are viewing occurred about 650 light-years away from Earth, which is almost next door in astronomical terms. Astronomers are therefore quite interested in the occurrence.
This new image of the encounter, captured in near-infrared by the SPHERE planet-hunting instrument on the Very Large Telescope of the European Southern Observatory, provides an exceptionally detailed look at the event.
(Judy Schmidt; Hubble, NASA, ESA)
What is occurring here is really tumultuous. The red giant is a Mira variable star, a star that has reached the end of its life. These types of stars have already lost at least fifty percent of their mass, and their luminosity is one thousand times that of the Sun.
The white dwarf, a star at the end of its existence that has depleted its nuclear fuel, is likewise highly active. The material it consumes from the red giant builds on the surface of the white dwarf, periodically sparking a massive thermonuclear explosion that launches the material into space.
This astoundingly crisp image depicts both the stars at the center of the material jets and the stars themselves. Eventually, the life of this binary system could culminate in a massive explosion – a Type Ia supernova.
Here you may download high-resolution and wallpaper-sized copies of the image, as well as read the corresponding article from the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.