Located about 11,400 light-years from Earth, the "one-in-10-billion" star system called CPD-29 2176 was first recognized by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Further observations with the SMARTS 1.5-Meter Telescope at Chile's Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory deemed that the star system could someday create a kilonova explosion.
Kilonova explosion happens when neutron stars crash into each other, sending high-energy particles through space. This collision of neutron stars also generates a luminous flash of radioactive light that produces large quantities of silver, gold, platinum and uranium. (Related: Heavy metal rain: Colossal "kilonova" explosions may be showering a nearby galaxy in gold and platinum.)
"The current neutron star would have to form without ejecting its companion from the system. An ultra-stripped supernova is the best explanation for why these companion stars are in such a tight orbit. To one day create a kilonova, the other star would also need to explode as an ultra-stripped supernova so the two neutron stars could eventually collide and merge," said astronomer Noel Richardson of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Ohio.
Astronomers posited that the kilonova will happen at CPD-29 2176 after seeing that it includes a neutron star created by what is called an ultra-stripped supernova along with a closely orbiting large star.
An ultra-stripped supernova is different from a regular supernova because it generates little or no ejecta, or "kick" – which experts believe is due to the exploding star already being deprived of its outer atmosphere by a companion star. The exploding star then develops into a neutron star because its supernova lacks explosive force.
A traditional supernova would kick a close companion star out of the system. The companion star often turns into another neutron star itself, which is what gives the perfect ingredients for a kilonova to happen.
CPD-29 2176 is extraordinary because astronomers had always believed that for a kilonova to form, at least one of the neutron stars had to be made from a traditional supernova explosion. But this is not the case with CPD-29 2176.
"For quite some time, astronomers speculated about the exact conditions that could eventually lead to a kilonova. These new results demonstrate that, in at least some cases, two sibling neutron stars can merge when one of them was created without a classical supernova explosion," said astronomer André-Nicolas Chené, a member of the team that observes CPD-29 2176.
"We know that the Milky Way contains at least 100 billion stars and likely hundreds of billions more. This remarkable binary system is essentially a one-in-ten-billion system. Prior to our study, the estimate was that only one or two such systems should exist in a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way."
The astronomers estimate it will take at least one million years for the enormous star to conclude its life as a gigantic supernova explosion and leave behind a second neutron star.
"This system reveals that some neutron stars are formed with only a small supernova kick. As we understand the growing population of systems like CPD-29 2176 we will gain insight into how calm some stellar deaths may be, and if these stars can die without traditional supernovas," said Richardson.
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