Solar System Chatter

Using Kepler as a Stethoscope

J.J. Hermes/Univ. of Warwick/NASA
J.J. Hermes/Univ. of Warwick/NASA
Some innovative science has led astronomers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Warwick to discover “irregular heartbeats” in two dying stars. They used data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which stares at faraway stars, looking for the faint dimming that reveals an exoplanet crossing its disk. The mission has allowed astronomers unprecedentedly long looks at the stars themselves and has revealed that some white dwarfs, which scientists already knew experience regular pulsations, are also experiencing arrhythmic outbursts that can increase the star’s brightness by more than 15% and raise the surface temperature 750 degrees in just an hour. White dwarfs go through a pulsation phase that begins and ends at a certain temperature, but astronomers aren’t exactly sure why; the irregular pulsations observed were in stars just at the end of his phase, says Keaton Bell, an astronomer on the Texas team, which “suggests that the outbursts could be the key to revealing the missing physics in our pulsation theory.”

Heather Goss is the Departments Editor at Air & Space.

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