Thursday, August 30, 2007

Some "fun" research

Yesterday I was waiting on colleagues to send me various files, and so I spent some time working on a "fun" project -- one that is not central to my normal research, but for which I have some data.

My main research is to look for and analyze normal white dwarfs (the white-hot glowing remains of dead stars) in star clusters. So, I look for objects that have the same colors as normal white dwarfs, and then I go and get more detailed data on each of those objects. Most do turn out to be normal white dwarfs, but I often stumble across other extreme objects.

Last year, one of my candidate normal white dwarfs turned out to be an abnormal white dwarf. Instead of a single dead star, slowly cooling off in space (like most white dwarfs), this one is a bit of a vampire. It is ripping material off of an unseen companion star and, using a very strong magnetic field, keeps the material for itself. This type of star, called a "polar" (pronounced POLE-are), is fairly rare, but many are known to exist. An artist's conception of a polar can be seen here

What makes the star I found especially interesting is that it may be in a star cluster. Since all stars in a cluster are the same age, we know how old this star system is. There are also a few other details about the star that we know, like how much metal it has. While stars are mostly made of hydrogen and helium, the metals (like iron) affect how a star lives and shines, and all stars in a star cluster have the same amount of metals.

I don't know how much we will learn from my observations, but it is still fun to be working on something completely different, and for which my observations may be important (or at least useful) to other people.

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