While it may seem unbelievable, astronomers from the University of Sydney, working in collaboration with a group of international researchers, believe that they have spotted a completely new star system in the Milky Way that can produce a powerful gamma-ray burst, and this system is known as the Apep star system.
According to Phys.org, the two-star system can be found 8,000 light years away from Earth and was christened with the name Apep since this ancient Egyptian god so perfectly embodied chaos. This name is certainly fitting as one of the stars in the system is currently edging very close to an enormous supernova explosion.
It should be noted that the new study on the Apep star system is highly controversial since to date there has been no gamma-ray burst ever detected within the Milky Way. Nevertheless, astronomers have located the binary pair of stars in this system in the southern constellation of Norma, which can be found slinking down beneath the tail of Scorpio.
The two stars are known as Wolf-Rayets, also referred to as WR stars, and have bold emission lines that contain ionized helium and nitrogen, or sometimes carbon. Dr. Joe Callingham, who is the head author of the groundbreaking new study on the Apep star system, explained that the enigmatic star system within the Milky Way was discovered through the use of a radio telescope.
“We discovered this star as an outlier in a survey with a radio telescope operated by the University of Sydney. We knew immediately we had found something quite exceptional: the luminosity across the spectrum from the radio to the infrared was off the charts. When we saw the stunning dust plume coiled around the these incandescent stars, we decided to name it ‘Apep’ – the monstrous serpent deity and mortal enemy of Sun god Ra from Egyptian mythology.”
As the University of Sydney’s Professor Peter Tuthill noted, the distinctive plume that was detected is one of the most crucial aspects of this star system.
“When we saw the spiral dust tail we immediately knew we were dealing with a rare and special kind of nebula called a pinwheel. The curved tail is formed by the orbiting binary stars at the center, which inject dust into the expanding wind creating a pattern like a rotating lawn sprinkler. Because the wind expands so much, it inflates the tiny coils of dust revealing the physics of the stars at the heart of the system. It was just astonishing. It was like finding a feather caught in a hurricane just drifting along at walking pace.”
Dr. Benjamin Pope of New York University, who is one of the authors of the new study, stated, “The key to understanding the bizarre behavior of the wind lies in the rotation of the central stars. What we have found in the Apep system is a supernova precursor that seems to be very rapidly rotating, so fast it might be near break-up. The rapid rotation puts Apep into a whole new class. Normal supernovae are already extreme events but adding rotation to the mix can really throw gasoline on the fire.”
Astronomers believe that all of the above means that the Apep star system may certainly be capable of producing a gamma-ray burst, which is so enormously powerful that it rates directly after the Big Bang in terms of cataclysmic events. However, Apep is not aimed at us, so Earth won’t have to worry about having ozone systematically stripped from its atmosphere.
As far as the future goes, Professor Tuthill has said that this is still unclear, but that if the star system slows down and turns into a supernova the Milky Way could be spared a dramatic gamma-ray burst.
“Ultimately, we can’t be certain what the future has in store for Apep. The system might slow down enough so it explodes as a normal supernova rather than a gamma-ray burst. However, in the meantime, it is providing astronomers a ringside seat into beautiful and dangerous physics that we have not seen before in our galaxy.”
The new study that describes the discovery of the Apep star system, which astronomers believe could produce a gamma-ray burst, has been published in Nature Astronomy.