Hawai‘i Telescopes Used to Characterize “Smallest and Most Massive” White Dwarf
Astronomers have discovered the “smallest and most massive” white dwarf ever seen, a seemingly counterintuitive notion.
“Smaller white dwarfs happen to be more massive. This is due to the fact that white dwarfs lack the nuclear burning that keep up normal stars against their own self gravity, and their size is instead regulated by quantum mechanics,” said Ilaria Caiazzo, the Sherman Fairchild Postdoctoral Scholar Research Associate in Theoretical Astrophysics at Caltech and lead author of the new study appearing in the July 1 issue of the journal Nature.
This remnant of a dead star is slightly larger than the Moon, but very heavy – 1.35 times more massive than the Sun. The white dwarf formed when two less massive white dwarfs merged. It is so massive, scientists say this extremely magnetized and rapidly rotating white dwarf might collapse.
The stellar corpse was discovered by the Zwicky Transient Facility at Caltech and characterized by several telescopes, including two Hawaiʻi observatories – W.M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawaiʻi Island and University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy’s Pan-STARRS on Haleakalā, Maui.
Scientitsts say white dwarfs are the collapsed remnants of stars that were once about eight times the mass of our Sun or lighter. “Our Sun, for example, after it first puffs up into a red giant in about 5 billion years, will ultimately slough off its outer layers and shrink down into a compact white dwarf. About 97% of all stars become white dwarfs,” according to information compiled by the W. M. Keck Observatory.
According to scientists, while our Sun is alone in space without a stellar partner, many stars orbit around each other in pairs. The stars grow old together, and if they are both less than eight solar-masses, they will both evolve into white dwarfs.
“The new discovery provides an example of what can happen after this phase. The pair of white dwarfs, which spiral around each other, lose energy in the form of gravitational waves and ultimately merge. If the dead stars are massive enough, they explode in what is called a type Ia supernova. But if they are below a certain mass threshold, they combine together into a new white dwarf that is heavier than either progenitor star. This process of merging boosts the magnetic field of that star and speeds up its rotation compared to that of the progenitors,” according to the Observatory.
Astronomers say that the newfound tiny white dwarf, named ZTF J1901+1458, took the latter route of evolution; its progenitors merged and produced a white dwarf 1.35 times the mass of our Sun.
“The white dwarf has an extreme magnetic field almost 1 billion times stronger than our Sun’s and whips around on its axis at a frenzied pace of one revolution every seven minutes (the zippiest white dwarf known, called EPIC 228939929, rotates every 5.3 minutes),” according to scientists.
“We caught this very interesting object that wasn’t quite massive enough to explode,” said Caiazzo. “We are truly probing how massive a white dwarf can be.”
What’s more, Caiazzo and her collaborators think that the merged white dwarf may be massive enough to evolve into a neutron-rich dead star, or neutron star, which typically forms when a star much more massive than our Sun explodes in a supernova.
“This is highly speculative, but it’s possible that the white dwarf is massive enough to further collapse into a neutron star,” said Caiazzo. “It is so massive and dense that, in its core, electrons are being captured by protons in nuclei to form neutrons. Because the pressure from electrons pushes against the force of gravity, keeping the star intact, the core collapses when a large enough number of electrons are removed.”
If this neutron star formation hypothesis is correct, it may mean that a significant portion of other neutron stars take shape in this way. The newfound object’s close proximity (about 130 light-years away) and its young age (about 100 million years old or less) indicate that similar objects may occur more commonly in our galaxy.
In the future, Caiazzo hopes to use ZTF to find more white dwarfs like this one, and, in general, to study the population as a whole. “There are so many questions to address, such as what is the rate of white dwarf mergers in the galaxy, and is it enough to explain the number of type Ia supernovae? How is a magnetic field generated in these powerful events, and why is there such diversity in magnetic field strengths among white dwarfs? Finding a large population of white dwarfs born from mergers will help us answer all these questions and more.”
The study, titled “A highly magnetised and rapidly rotating white dwarf as small as the Moon,” was funded by the Rose Hills Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, NASA, the Heising–Simons Foundation, the A.F. Morrison Fellowship of the Lick Observatory, the NSF, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.