A magnetic field wailed somewhere in the universe.
A young protostar in L483 and its signature outflow peek out through a shroud of dust in this infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. NASA/JPL-Caltech/J.Tobin (University of Michigan)
Two stars appear to have found each other after being born in the same stellar nursery but on opposite ends. But there were no angels singing or futures falling into place when the stars aligned. There was a snarl-up.
According to an article to be published this week in The Astrophysical Journal, the magnetic field encircling this sparkling duet crumpled, creaked, and distorted.
The predominant view is that as one of these star siblings drew closer to the other, "it modified the dynamics of the cloud to distort its magnetic field," Erin Cox, an astrophysicist at Northwestern University and the paper's lead author, said in a statement.
Aside from conveying a beautiful story about a cosmic reunion, the team's strange magnetic anomaly could lead to some major discoveries in the future. Understanding exoplanet habitability, sun-like star activity, and possibly even the search for extraterrestrial life are all things that researchers are working on.
That's because unlocking the secrets of binary star systems — like the two under investigation for tampering with their own stellar nursery's magnetic field — could reveal information about planets nearby.
"Planet and star creation happen at the same time, and binary stars interact dynamically," Cox explained. "We know planets exist around these double stars from our exoplanet census, but we don't know much about how they differ from planets that dwell around isolated stars."
Earth orbits a single star, the sun, but could there be a version of Earth that orbits stellar twins?
For example, Alpha Centauri is the nearest star system to us, with two primary stars orbiting within it. Many scientists believe that this location in the cosmos could be hospitable to life, and some even intend to send a hypersonic spacecraft with imaging gear over there one day in the hopes of discovering such signals.
Knowing about binary star dynamics before embarking on the journey could be really beneficial.
The twisted field's story
Following a hunch about a well-known star-forming cloud known as L483, Cox and his colleagues discovered the strange binary star twins.
L483 didn't appear to be anything exceptional at first glance. It was a typical stellar nursery, roughly 100 times the size of our solar system, that shoots out masses of stellar material and aids in the formation of tons of stars. It even possessed what appeared to be a typical magnetic field.
"At first, it seemed to match what theory predicted," stated Cox. "However, theory can say one thing while observations say something else."
Zooming in on L483 revealed a whole different story.
The researchers saw right away that the magnetic field of L483 was not typical after utilizing NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, to take a closer look at it. There was something unusual going on. It's time to delve a little deeper.
The researchers then discovered something even stranger than the magnetic problem when they used a powerful radio telescope called the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile, or ALMA. Another baby orb was hiding directly beneath one of L483's newborn stars.
"There is newer evidence that says it's feasible for two stars to develop far apart, then one star to move in closer to create a binary," Cox explained. "We believe that's what's going on here."
"We don't know why one star would move toward another," Cox continued, "but we believe the moving star modified the system's dynamics to distort the magnetic field."
Additional observations revealed a few critical facts about the binary star system, including the fact that it is still very young from our perspective, that it is steadily forming, and that it is about the same distance apart as our sun is from Pluto. "We will be able to test these conclusions with a statistical sample," Cox added, "with new tools coming online to discover and study new binary systems."