“Nasty 1” and It’s Cosmic Cannibalistic Companion

06 Jul 2015

We may have thought the act of cannibalism was just something uncivilized lost tribes did long, long ago, but when it comes to space objects, it may be going on more than we think…

The Hubble Space Telescope has picked up on a nearby Wolf-Rayet star (one that has advanced through its evolutionary phases and is losing mass at a high rate) located around 3,00 light-years away. Although, this star isn’t unique in itself, the fact that it is in our Milky Way galaxy and exhibiting another strange behavior is definitely cause for excitement.

NaSt1 (nicknamed Nasty 1) was first discovered many decades ago, but instead of observing the twin lobes of gas spewing from each end of a typical Wolf-Rayet, astronomers were astounded to see a pancake-shaped disk of gas spanning about two trillion miles wide around the star. If this isn’t odd enough, Nasty appears to have a hungry companion, one that is “feeding” off of the decaying star to add to its own mass which could account for this enormous disk of dust.

The Cannibalistic Companion

A typical Wolf-Rayet star burns through its hydrogen envelope then begins fusing helium and heavier elements at its core – this happens very quickly and results in a very bright helium-burning core. Scientists thought stellar winds were the predominant reason why Wolf-Rayet stars broke down, but are now being led to believe a hungry companion star may indeed be the culprit.

Astronomers have found at least 70 percent of all these gigantic stars are a part of a double-star system, concluding that this mass transfer between stars is a very viable theory.

Nasty 1’s companion is literally munching on the debris flying off of the primary star, adding it to its own mass. In addition, the stellar winds from both stars are colliding. This cosmic chaos makes it extremely difficult for astronomers to observe all the action and haven’t yet come to any definite conclusions; however, they do know once Nasty 1 has run out of its layers the mass transfer will stop. Once this happens, astronomers will finally be able to get a clear view of the cannibalistic companion.

What’s to Come?

At this point astronomers are speculating at what may become of Nasty 1 and its companion, but they are excited to find out. It could evolve into another system like Eta Carinae. The companion star could go through a massive explosion due to instability from its mass gain. The Wolf-Rayet could explode as a supernova or a stellar merger may occur (depending on the orbital evolution of the system).

Regardless of Nasty 1’s predicament, we will just have to wait and wonder what the future holds for this fascinating anomaly. Until then keep your eyes and telescopes on the night sky…