How stellar death can lead to twin celestial jets
Astronomers know that while large stars can end their lives as violently cataclysmic supernovae, smaller stars end up as planetary nebulae — colorful, glowing clouds of dust and gas. In recent decades these nebulae, once thought to be mostly spherical, have been observed to often emit powerful, bipolar jets of gas and dust. But how do spherical stars evolve to produce highly aspherical planetary nebulae?
Astronomers know that while large stars can end their lives as violently cataclysmic supernovae, smaller stars end up as planetary nebulae — colourful, glowing clouds of dust and gas. In recent decades these nebulae, once thought to be mostly spherical, have been observed to often emit powerful, bipolar jets of gas and dust. But how do spherical stars evolve to produce highly aspherical planetary nebulae?In a theoretical paper published this week in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a University of Rochester professor and his undergraduate student conclude that only “strongly interacting” binary stars — or a star and a massive planet — can feasibly give rise to these powerful jets.When these smaller stars run out of hydrogen to burn they begin to expand and become Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) stars. This phase in a star’s life lasts at most 100,000 years. At some point some of these AGB stars, which represent the distended last spherical stage in the lives of low mass stars, become “pre-planetary” nebula, which are aspherical.”What happens to change these spherical AGB stars into non-spherical nebulae, with two jets shooting out in opposite directions?” asks Eric Blackman, professor of physics and astronomy at Rochester. “We have been trying to come up with a better understanding of what happens at this stage.”For the jets in the nebulae to form, the spherical AGB stars have to somehow become non-spherical and Blackman says that astronomers believe this occurs because AGB stars are not single stars but part of a binary system. The jets are thought to be produced by the ejection of material that is first pulled and acquired, or “accreted,” from one object to the other and swirled into a so-called accretion disk. There are, however, a range of different scenarios for the production of these accretion disks. All these scenarios involve two stars or a star and a massive planet, but it has been hard to rule any of them out until now because the “core” of the AGBs, where the disks form, are too small to be directly resolved by telescopes. Blackman and his student, Scott Lucchini, wanted to determine whether the binaries can be widely separated and weakly interacting, or whether they must be close and strongly interacting.By studying the jets from pre-planetary and planetary nebulae, Blackman and Lucchini were able to connect the energy and momentum involved in the accretion process with that in the jets; the process of accretion is what in effect provides the fuel for these jets. …
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